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The Hand-Quilted Coverlet
Quilting was undoubtedly among the forms of needlework practiced by early American housewives from the days of the Plymouth settlement until well into the second half of the nineteenth century. The art of quilting developed along with weaving, spinning, and crewel embroidery until, by 1750> quilts were commonplace articles in the average household.
There were various types and the designs were numerous. Whatever the design, three parts were necessary-top, lining, and interlining, all joined together by finely set stitches in a definite pattern. There were also three ways to make the top. There could be a plain piece of cloth with the decoration depending entirely on the quilting design . There could be a plain piece of cloth overlaid with a design of patchwork, or there could be a top made of cloth fragments pieced together in blocks of varied size, color, and shape. The latter was really a product of the maker's spare time and the contents of her piece bag which held every scrap left over from the making of clothes.
The pieced quilt was strictly for everyday use and the quilting design was relatively simple. The patchwork top, on the other hand, provided a real chance for artistic expression and many of the designs resembled crewel work with cloth instead of thread as a medium.
But for intricacy of quilting, there was nothing like the all-white coverlet. It had a very thin interlining and the special quilting design usually consisted of a large central panel or pattern with smaller ones in harmony for the corners. Every inch of the material was quilted, even to the background which resembled a woven fabric.
As a finishing touch, after the coverlet was removed from the quilting frame, the main design was often brought into relief by stuffing the most prominent features. To do this, tiny holes were made on the wrong side and cotton pushed in with a large needle until every detail so treated stood out in bold relief. The example in the illustration has a border, notched at the lower corners to fit a four-poster, quilted in a shell and floral pattern. The central panel is quilted so minutely as to resemble petitpoint. On the reverse, in stitching, is the inscription, "Quilted by Mrs. Eunice Ely and her daughter, Catherine, in Chester, Conn, in 1819 and stuffed by the latter."
The idea for this kind of coverlet may well have stemmed from a type of counterpane known during the Elizabethan period in England which was worked in geometric figures. In America, the all-white coverlet was in vogue from the latter years of the eighteenth through the first quarter of the nineteenth centuries.
Today surviving examples are very rare. Machine-made imitations, known as Marseilles bedspreads, were popular during the 1890's, and even into the present century, but are not to be confused with the fine hand-wrought coverlet of a century earlier.