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Machine Quilting in the 19th Century

Twenty-first century quilters are quick to dismiss machine quilting as something less than "authentic" - a nasty modern shortcut not available to our great-great-grandmothers. But the earliest Singer home sewing machine ads mention machine quilting, and the star of the DAR Museum's quilt collection is a machine-quilted quilt dating from the last quarter of the 19th century. 

One of the most dazzling examples is a wholecloth "family tree" quilt made by (Mr.) J.B. Roberson of Cleburne, Texas (Bresnehan and Puentes, Lone Stars:  A Legacy of Texas Quilts 1836-1936.).  The entire face of this vivid Turkey red quilt is free-motion machine-quilted in white thread with vines, scrolls, the names of Roberson's ancestors, and the date it was completed (1893) - in careful, elaborate script! 

Just one of H.T. Davis's many quilting frames

Also named in the quilt is Roberson's brother-in-law, J.W.Mills, who held the bulk of the quilt as Roberson labored over it.  Roberson was a sewing machine salesman, and he may have made the quilt as a marketing tool, using a quilting attachment invented in 1892 by Henry Davis of Chicago.

Hoover's 1872 design

U.S. Patent Office records are full of home machine quilting frames dating almost from the time sewing machines were first in home use, and many modern systems look very much like their 19th century forebears.

By the end of the Civil War, sewing machines were entering homes at the rate of 20,000 per year; in 1871 Singer sold an amazing 180,000  machines. Mrs. Augusta Hoover  received the first U.S. patent for a machine quilting frame. Its description as an "improvement" suggests that it was not the first of its kind. Like most of the systems that followed, it consisted of a two-bar, ratchet-geared roller frame that held the quilt taut. (A comparable modern example would be the John Flynn system.) The frame then slid along tracks attached to the bed of the sewing machine like the carriage of a typewriter. As the user operated the sewing machine, the frame would move along the track, allowing perfectly straight, parallel lines to be quilted.

Just six months later, W.H. Heffley introduced a simplified system. He removed the tracks and added a template that allowed a pattern to be stitched that looked a lot like the "wavy diamond" design often seen on late 1960s machine-quilted yard goods.

   

A 19th century quilting machine - is this Crall's design?

By 1877 J.J. Crall decided it should be the machine, not the frame, that moved; his system will be recognized by modern quilters as the precursor to today's longarm quilting system. Just as today, the machine sits on a platform which moves along a track underneath the quilt. But only parallel lines could be quilted, and since the electric sewing machine was still decades in the future, a handcrank on the platform operated the sewing machine and moved the machine along the quilt in its frame.

But other inventors thought the stationary machine system was the way to go. H.T. Davis's 1882 design made the whole frame (all eight feet of it!) move along the floor on casters alongside the sewing machine. This wasn't exactly practical - it required a a room at least 18 feet long and remarkable coordination on the part of the quilter, who had to move the frame with one hand at just the right speed as she pedaled (or cranked) the machine. 

Crall's patent

Over the next decade Mr. Davis patented more than a dozen different machine quilting frames. It's not hard to picture poor Mrs. Davis patiently testing out her husband's latest "improvement" and wondering why she ever let him know she could quilt.  

During the following 30 years more than 100 other frames for machine quilting were patented, many so elaborate that only their inventor could think they were practical. Many were downright wacky. The foot pressure on one incredibly complicated machine could only be adjusted by adding or removing lead shot!  In fact, for decades the only real changes were in whether and how the frame rested on legs or hung from the ceiling, and in how the frame held the quilt taut. J.J. Crall's visionary design stood alone.

The first real innovation was Frank Palmer's 1895 system , which produced one large, central medallion by revolving the quilt on its frame under the sewing machine - in the same way that the arm of a record player traces the path of a record.

Because of its limited capabilities and the huge space it required, it's doubtful Palmer's frame was intended for home use. But from the patents and advertisements of the period, it's clear many other frames were aimed at the home quilter. And at least one (Clayton's 1897 design, which hung from a ceiling track) allowed free-motion work.

Heffley's "wavy line" frame

 

Palmer's "record player" frame

Clayton's free-motion frame

It's notable that most quilting machine patents date from the last decade before the 20th century, when quilts were falling out of fashion and were considered more functional than decorative. This (and short money in the Depression) may explain why no patents for such machines were issued after the mid-1930s, when quilting as an art form again became popular.

Why, then, don't we see more machine-quilted 19th century quilts? Here are a few possibilities:

  • Modern notions to the contrary, quilting was as much a creative outlet for our foremothers as it is for us. In an era when nearly every woman did needlework and elaborate hand quilting designs were still the norm, machine quilting may have been - well, boring. It also may have felt a bit like cheating.

  • Quilting systems were advertised as timesavers. If unlike "best" quilts which were carefully passed down as heirlooms, machine-quilted quilts were intended for daily use, most of them may simply have worn out long before we got a chance to see them.

  • Just as few 21st century quilters have the room or money for a longarm system, it's possible many quilters found the elaborate machine quilting systems too big and too expensive to justify. When Pa could clamp four poles together and hang them from the porch ceiling for Ma to quilt on, why buy some fancy gadget?

  • Until the 1870s, sewing machine technology just wasn't sufficiently user-friendly to add more complications.  Reading the instructions for this 1858 Grover & Baker machine make operating a 21st century machine look like a walk in the park!

  • Walking and free-motion feet are blessings of the late 20th century. Although machine-quilting with a hoop is possible, if you've ever tried it with a regular presser foot, you know what a nightmare of puckers can result. It may simply not have been worth the trouble.

So can today's quilter feel "authentic" in machine-quilting a top she's made of turn-of-the-century reproduction fabrics? Based on what we've seen of 19th century machine quilting systems, if she keeps in mind the limitations of those systems when deciding on her designs, and reserves machine-quilting for simply-pieced tops, we can happily answer "Yes!"

Interested in early sewing machines?  Treat yourself - visit www.needlebar.com.  

More quilting frame patents can been seen by visiting the US Patent Office at www.uspto.gov/netahtml/search-adv.htm and entering the code CCL/112/119 in the search field, then selecting 1790 to 1975 from the pulldown menu.
 
Illustrations courtesy of the US Patent Office

 

"Humility" blocks

Do a Google keyword search on "quilt humility block" and you will find almost a thousand quilt-related websites claiming that back in the old days, quilters would put a deliberate error in their quilts - a block turned sideways, a different shade of red in one part, something skewed or "wrong". This, we are told, comes from the idea that since only God is perfect, making a perfect quilt is prideful. Thus the "humility block" was an exercise in Biblical decorum. Sometimes the story is more elaborate: the "humility block" appears at the lower right corner, or we're told that if a bride made a perfect quilt, her marriage would be unhappy, or that the practice began with the Amish or the Native Americans. 

It's certainly a nice idea. What quilter hasn't goofed at least once in each quilt? Rather than rip out and resew, all we need to do is say "well, that'll be my Humility Block" - and we get to feel connected with our foremothers in the bargain. But the research of quilt historians reveals that the "humility block" appears to be a figment of mid-20th century imagination. 

The subject arose in a June 2000 Quilt History List discussion. Quilt historian and AQS appraiser Bobbie Aug, who has taught pre-1940 Old Order Amish-style quiltmaking, said she once spent a week with an Old Order Amish family. The Amish quilters she asked about the "humility block" were aghast. To them "an intentional error is saying just the opposite - that their work is perfect and that they would have to be purposeful in order to make mistakes." 

After 20 years of research among the Amish in Missouri, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania, Bettina Havig has developed close connections with Amish quiltmakers; she's written two books on the subject. Ask an Amish quilter about the "humility block," she says, "and the answer will be 'I make enough mistakes without making them on purpose'." Havig dismisses the story as "just one more attempt to romanticize an aspect of quiltmaking." She notes that not only has she found no evidence supporting this tradition among the Amish; she hasn't found "any sort of quilt superstition" in that community. 

Xenia Cord, a quilt historian who has taught folklore at Indiana University for more than two decades, also wondered about the concept of "intentional mistakes". "If intentionally making a design flaw in order to avoid the perfection that is relegated to God alone is done to keep the maker humble, isn't this in itself a kind of arrogance? (i.e., 'I'm so good that unless I mess up intentionally, I am perfect.') Where's the humility in that?" Cord also wryly wonders, "[I]s there a quilter among us who is so good that she makes NO errors in piecing, joining, appliqueing, or quilting (that can't be fudged or covered up)?" She hypothesized that "the whole 'intentional flaw' thing may be the observer's way of trying to explain why an unknown quilter, who has made something the observer can't make, would have left that piece upside down, or that heart slightly lopsided, or that line of quilting unfinished." 

In her usual meticulous way, quilt historian Barbara Brackman researched the issue for the June 1988 issue of Quilters Newsletter Magazine, and actually tried to trace the story back to its origins. Brackman says no mention of the practice appears in any of the early 20th century quilt books. The first published reference she found to the "humility block" custom is in Florence Peto's 1949 book American Quilts and Coverlets, in relation to one piece of chintz in one quilt: 

In certain localities superstitious quiltmakers tried this way to divert the "Evil Eye" which otherwise might be cast jealously on human endeavor; it was analogous to the Oriental idea that to make a perfect thing is to imitate the Deity, therefore unlucky and presumptuous. 

Peto gives no source for her information, nor does she specify the "certain localities". Brackman notes that Peto's story is identical to the one told at Oriental rug shops (which most rug historians also consider fictional). 

Brackman also researched folklore publications for evidence of the practice, and found many quilt traditions had been recorded ( for example, in 1930s Louisiana a Log Cabin quilt hung on a clothesline was an invitation to a barn raising). But even in oral histories taken as late as the 1970s no mention was made of a "humility block". Yet by 1988, every quilter she interviewed had heard of it, although none had actually been taught the practice by an old-time quilter. They had all read it in a book or magazine, or learned it from their quilt guild.

 

Historian Jeannette Lasansky, a leading force behind the Union County, Pennsylvania Oral Traditions Project, addressed the question in a 1994 symposium paper, "Myth and Reality in Craft Tradition" (On the Cutting Edge, copyright 1994, Oral Traditions Project).  The Project is known for its painstaking research into all areas of folk art.  Lasansky writes:

Neither do many old-time [Amish and Mennonite] quilters acknowledge the accuracy of [the humility block] myth....Rather they relate being glad to have had even half a dozen quilts in their hope chest [instead of the dozen Ruth Finley claimed was common to 19th century quilters] and of never needing to make a deliberate mistake.  Neither of these particularly well-entrenched myths has been confirmed in any 19th century manuscripts.

The recent research of Louisianan Ashley Graves into quilting and folklore presents another possibility for these sometimes oddly placed blocks.  She observes that historically, "women are considered to be emotional about nearly everything they do," and notes that our culture tends to automatically presume a deep symbolism exists in women's art and craftwork.  She then compares that attitude with the matter-of-fact approach of actual quilters from her own family:

My great aunt [Norma Lee Jeffrey, of Deville in central Louisiana] was showing me a quilt her mother did about 75 years ago. She pointed out that about 6 blocks were turned sideways so that the birds were facing an awkward direction as if she had sewn the blocks together in the dark and didn't realize that they were turned wrong. My great aunt then explained to me that her mother did it because so many women make quilts with the same pattern.  But if the quilter did something a little different it would make hers unique and be sort of a signature. That way each quilt is unique, even the ones made by the same quilter.

Regional Characteristics of Traditional Amish Quilts

 

As their communities grew and farmland became more expensive in the years after WWII, the Amish increasingly have turned from farming to various crafts as an income source, wisely capitalizing on both the nation's tourism industry and the romanticized notions of outsiders about Amish culture.  Particularly since the 1970s (when quilts became trendy again) "Amish" quilts have been  marketed at gift shops, farmsteads, and quaint-looking "farm auctions" in the region, but such quilts are made in designs and colors carefully selected to appeal to mainstream America.  They have little, if anything, in common with traditional Amish quilts; in fact, the communities' ordnung (rules) forbid such "worldly" quilts being used in an Amish home.   Whether such quilts should be described as "Amish" is debatable.  Could a plate of sushi made by an Italian chef reasonably be called "Italian food"?  (Or as they say down here in Dixie, "if the cat had kittens in the oven, we wouldn't call 'em biscuits.")

 

It's also worth noting that in 1900, there were only about 3,700 Amish in the entire North American continent (even today the total adult population is around 56,000).   If every "antique Amish" quilt listed on ebay and sold at auctions and in antique shops were in fact Amish-made, we would have to conclude that from infancy to their graves, the Amish of both sexes did nothing but quilt!

Nao Nomura and Janneken Smucker's recent paper in the 2006 edition of Uncoverings convincingly refutes the common presumption (apparently originating with Robert Bishop and Elizabeth Safanda's unsubstantiated claim in A Gallery of Amish Quilts) that the Amish began to abandon their traditional or "classic" quiltmaking style beginning around WWII .  Through fiber analysis and genealogical research, Nomura and Smucker demonstrate that of about half the Mifflin County quilts in the IQSC collection previously assumed to date before 1940 were made much later - often as late as the 1980s.  In one case, an Amish quilter identified a quilt previously dated 1890-1895 as one she had made of old fabrics between 1980-1990.

The authors also point out that while romantic notions persist "that Amish women made quilts from home-grown wool and dyed the cloth using berries, barks and roots found in the countryside," recent research shows "that Amish quiltmakers purchased fabric from traveling salesmen and mail-order catalogs, a fact that produces a much less pastoral image than shearing sheep and dyeing wool."

There are Amish settlements in 23 states, but most communities are in (in descending order) Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan.  No matter what community or region they come from, traditional Amish quilts share four characteristics:  solid colors only (except for backing), no white fabric, piecing only (no applique), and dense, elaborate quilting, frequently in dark-colored thread.  The only representational image seen in the quilts in the IQSC database is the basket, although flowers often appear as quilted motifs.  

Amish quilts should not be confused with those of their Mennonite sisters, whose quilting traditions frequently allow applique and printed fabrics, or with those of the non-Amish/Mennonite Pennsylvania Dutch, whose vividly-colored pieced quilts were executed in the Lancaster blue, double pink, chrome yellow and "poison" green calicos of the late 19th century. 

So - what makes a quilt authentically Amish? Because of the mass-marketing of Amish culture over the past 40 years, to accurately understand the aesthetics of traditional Amish quilts, we must look at quilts made before the end of WWII. The following summary was compiled from data on more than 300 pre-1950 Amish quilts in the International Quilt Study Center collection (keyword search "Amish") and the  IQSC Guide to Amish quilts.  The little quilts pictured in each column as examples are colormatched, doll-sized adaptations I made of "human-sized" quilts from each region; click on them to see a larger image.

 

  Lancaster County PA Mifflin County PA Midwest
Nebraska Byler Peachy a/k/a Renno
Fabrics Fine dress-weight wool Cotton (74%), rayon (13%), or wool (8%) Cotton
Colors All shades and tints of the spectrum except white; preference for contrasting deep/ midrange, highly saturated colors Limited to shades of grey, brown, blue, purple All shades and tints of the spectrum except white; often include bright shades of pink, yellow, orange, blue  All colors of the spectrum except white; often have black background with bright shades of goldenrod, blue, purple, green  All shades and tints of the spectrum including pastels, but limited use of green, no white; often have black background
Quilt patterns

9-Patch,  Bars, Center Diamond, Log Cabin, Sunshine and Shadow, "contained" Crazy (crazy blocks alternating with plain blocks)

 

One Patch, 4-Patch, 9-Patch, Bars

One Patch, 4-Patch, 9-Patch, Bars, Basket, Bowtie, Center Diamond, Crown of Thorns, Fan, Jacob’s Ladder, Star of Bethlehem, Streak of Lightning, Sunshine and Shadow, Triangles, Tumbling Blocks, Variable Star

 

 

One-Patch, 4-Patch, 9-Patch, Bars, Basket, Basket of Chips, Bear's Paw, Bow Tie, Bricks, Broken Dishes, Buzz Saw, Cactus Basket, Carolina Lily, Carpenter's Wheel, Chinese Coins, Crosses and Losses, Diamonds, Double or Triple Irish Chain, Fan, Flying Geese, Half Log Cabin, Hearts and Gizzards, Hen and Chickens, Herringbone, Hole in the Barn Door, Jack in the Pulpit, Jacob's Ladder, Kansas Dugout, Lemoyne Star, Log Cabin, Lost Ship, North Star, Ocean Waves, Pine Tree, Rail Fence, Railroad Crossing, Rob Peter to Pay Paul, Roman Stripe, Sailboat, Six-Pointed Star, Square-in- a-Square, Star of Bethlehem, Streak of Lightning, String-Pieced Star, Sunshine and Shadow, Tulip, Tumbling Blocks, Variable Star

 

Courtesy of Greta Boioli, here are some excellent closeup photos of an Old Order Amish quilt (probably 1930s given the heliotrope cotton backing).  Note the various lightweight wools used including crepe, and the unmitered binding, which is much wider than is typically found in mainstream American quilts. 

More traditional, mostly pre-1950 Amish quilts online: 

 

Amish Quilts of the Midwest (Holmes County, OH) - 1999 exhibit curated by Julie Silber

Amish Quilts of Lancaster County, PA - 1999 exhibit curated by Julie Silber

Revere Collection of Lancaster County, PA Amish quilts (formerly the Esprit Collection)

Amish quilt collection (all types) of Jacques and Catherine Légeret of Switzerland (also some Mennonite quilts for comparison)

Amish quilt collection (all types - also a few Mennonite quilts) of Faith and Stephen Brown 

 

...Now compare with the quilts currently for sale by the Amish in this photo.

 

A good article giving an overview of Amish quilts at the Fowler Museum

 


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