heirloom? Or Asian-made repro?
Antique and vintage
quilts have become so popular in the past few decades that
it was inevitable they’d be commercially reproduced, and
since the mid-1980s, Asian-manufactured, hand-quilted bed
quilts seem to be everywhere you look. If like me you’ve
got a houseful of pets, kids, and sloppy grownups, these
are a great bedcovering solution. You can pick one up at
Walmart for next to nothing, and you never have to worry
about popped threads or spilled salsa, because you
can throw them in the washer and dryer without a second
Now if you’re simply
buying a quilt because you like it, whether it’s an
original or an Asian knockoff shouldn’t matter. Just pay
a price you’re comfortable with and enjoy it. But
if you’re investing, or trying to learn about antique
quilts and textiles, or plan on impressing collectors with your
"find", save yourself a headache.
Educate yourself before you hit that "Pay Now!"
Why? Because just
as in every popular collectibles market, some sellers at
estate sales, antiques shops and on ebay don't know (or
"forget" to tell you) that the
"antique" they’re selling is a reproduction. And
the difference in value between a fake and the real McCoy
can be significant.
than once an ebay auction has featured a fabulous
"folk art" quilt the seller had bought
at an estate sale, typically with a high (in one
case, $500) opening bid. But those familiar with
quilt history recognize it as a mass-produced
reproduction of the famous 1886 Harriet
Powers "Bible" quilt at the
Smithsonian Institution. (To make it look more
like the original, resellers often cut off the repro's
wide top and bottom margins and rebind it.)
Another commonly seen Smithsonian repro is the
"Baile album quilt" shown at right.
You can see the repro here,
and a closeup here.
These and other quilts were manufactured in Asia
between 1991-93 under Smithsonian license, and
originally retailed for around $150. The
originals are worth about a thousand times that
the original "Baile album" quilt in the
Smithsonian; below left, original 1992 ad for the
and textile historians quickly raised a ruckus about the
repros; they knew that once the quilts were out of their
original packaging, unscrupulous or uninformed resellers
were likely to call them "antique". In
1994 the Smithsonian stopped licensing reproduction
quilts. But more repros and "vintage style"
quilts flooded the market. One repro even ended up
in a museum
exhibit, described as an original design.
American-Pacific (the Smithsonian licensee), Arch Quilts
of Elmsford/Hawthorne NY was a major importer of these
quilts. You can read more about Arch (and see some of its
if you've got an Arch quilt and would like to share
photos, please email me. But that list is far from
complete, so here are a few pointers on spotting the
of these quilts seem to be in the style of Depression-era
or turn-of-the-century quilts, that’s my focus here.
(Many thanks to ebay seller Raggedyrabbit
for her great photos!)
quilts tend to be free and easy with historical accuracy.
The Dresden Plate, Giant Dahlia, Wedding Ring and
Sunbonnet Sue patterns weren’t introduced until the late
1920s, when the new pastel fabrics replaced the darker
palette of the previous century. An authentically vintage
quilt in these patterns in a dark color scheme is rare
indeed, but common among repros (particularly during the
"Ralph Lauren" phase of the mid-1990s).
Birdhouses, snowmen and Santas are a 1990s invention.
19th century calico fabrics were very small in scale,
were limited to indigo and medium blue, black, burgundy,
red, bright yellow, pink, and (rarely) deep green or
chocolate brown, and didn’t often contain more than 2
fabrics and feedsacks came in some weird,
so-wrong-they’re-right color combinations (brown/orange,
lavender/red) that are conspicuously absent from repro
quilts. If the prints are closely coordinated (a large
print, a small print, a printed check), or in a typical
late 20th century color scheme (hunter/burgundy/navy,
mauve/antique blue, Laura Ashley pastels or the current
favorite - paprika/gold/sage), raise an eyebrow. The
piecing of a Double Wedding Ring may initially appear
"scrappy", but look again: while in the antique
the piecing is random, in the repro the same fabrics will
appear in the same place in each arc.
shirtings, and white-on-white fabrics
century quilters tended to use tiny shirting prints in
black, red or indigo on white for their light fabric. When
they did use muslin, like their later Depression-era
sisters, they used white, not unbleached. (The
natural-color feedsack quilters used in the ‘30s is
easily distinguished from muslin by its coarser weave.)
White-on-white and cream-on-white prints are a creation of
the 1990s, as is the fashion for using unbleached muslin.
piecing, and embellishment
applique in antique/vintage quilts was limited to a tiny
straight stitch. Singer introduced its first home zigzag
machine in the 1940s; a zigzag attachment was available
before then, but the way it worked limited its use to
straight lines - no fancy shapes. So machine satin or
blanket stitching, and particularly machine-embroidered
embellishment, is a repro "red flag".
of a repro Double Wedding Ring are
usually square, or wider than they are tall (fewer
segments per arc), while in authentic vintage
quilts they are usually rectangular, and taller than
they are wide (more segments per arc).
antique/vintage counterparts, 1990s manufactured quilts
are often embellished with inexpensive, Chinese-made lace
or Battenberg lace medallions. (You can buy your own at
any craft store for about a dollar apiece.)
because the batting is cotton and the quilting's by hand,
you've got an oldie; manufacturers abandoned poly batting
some years back. Carefully look at the quilting
instead. Vintage/antique quilts were
densely quilted for two reasons: to decorate the quilt,
and to keep the batting in place. Before polyester and
needlepunched cotton batting appeared in the late 20th
century, rows of quilting could not be much more than an
inch apart, or the batting would clump up the first time
the quilt was washed. And (even more than today),
quilters prided themselves on small, even stitches.
A quilter with the skill and patience to piece a Double
Wedding Ring or Blazing Star top would not skimp when she
did her quilting; her stitches would be plentiful, fine
and even - 8 to 14 stitches per inch. Mass-produced quilts
are also hand quilted, but quite sparsely, and commonly
contain as few as 4 stitches per inch.
quilts are finished in three ways: with a separate binding
(particularly on curved-edge quilts); by wrapping the
backing around to the front or vice-versa; or (rarely)
with a "knife" edge, folding under the raw edges
of the front and back and invisibly stitching them
first two finishes can be done at home by hand or
machine, but because the edge of the quilt is
finished after it's removed from the
quilting frame, a "knife" edge on a
homemade quilt can be done only by hand.
manufactured quilt has machine-sewn
"knife" edge. Note the symmetrical
placement of "scraps" in the
mass-produced quilt's arcs, and how those pieces
are more square than rectangular.
"Knife" edge on mass-produced 1990s
quilt is closed by machine. Right: 1930s
quilt has hand-whipstitched
"knife" edge is the most common finish
on mass- produced quilts. The top, backing
and batting are assembled right sides together
like a pillowcase and machine stitched.
1930s quilt has separate pink binding and many
rectangular segments in each arc. Below:
Another 1930s quilt whose green backing is
brought around to the front as binding
better mass- produced quilts have been
appearing with what at first glance looks
like a separate binding on their edge.
Look closer and you'll see it's actually
piping inserted into a knife edge. Home
quilters virtually abandoned piped edges
more than 160 years ago.
Coordinating pillow shams are a common
part of a mass-produced quilt package, but
rare in antique and vintage quilts. If
your shams close with a zipper
(particularly a plastic one), be wary, and
check for serged seams on the inside.
Both say "manufactured."
laugh. I’ve seen more than one
person convinced she had a vintage
original until she found the stub of a
fiber-content or manufacturer’s label in
the binding. Keep in mind, though, that
the absence of a stub doesn’t mean
it’s vintage; it may have been very
thing is then turned right-side out, and
the opening is stitched up, almost always
by machine. Then the quilt is hand-
quilted - exactly the reverse of how a
homemade quilt is made. Usually the
manufacturer puts a row of quilting about
1/4" from the knife edge to keep it
in place. This is another
edge on a manufactured quilt made from
'30s repros. Above, natural
muslin back is machine-stitched to green
print top. Left, coarse hand
quilting 1/4" away from quilt edge
(at right of picture) keeps it in place. Below,
close examination of the front and
back of this high-end mass-produced quilt
show that what at first glance looks like
a homemade binding is really bias-covered
piping inserted into the knife edge.