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Homemade 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 thought.

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!" button.

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.

More 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 amount.

Above, the original "Baile album" quilt in the Smithsonian; below left, original 1992 ad for the American-Pacific reproduction.

Quilt 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.

Along with 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 imports) here; 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 repros. 

Since most 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!)

Style

Asian repro 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.  

Printed fabrics

Late 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 colors. Depression-era 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.  

Muslins, shirtings, and white-on-white fabrics

Turn-of-the 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.  

Applique, piecing, and embellishment

Machine 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". 

The segments 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).

Unlike their 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.)

Quilting

Don't assume 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.

Finishing

Vintage/antique 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 together.

The 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.

Below:  1990s 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. 

 Above: "Knife" edge on mass-produced 1990s quilt is closed by machine.  Right:  1930s quilt has  hand-whipstitched "knife" edge.   

The "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.

Above:  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

Recently, 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.   

 

Accessories


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."

Label

Don’t 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 carefully removed.

The whole 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 "repro" giveaway.

"Knife" 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. 

 


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