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American Piecing', Patchin' And Quiltin'
The pioneer bride's announcement party was often a "quiltin'." Long stored quilt tops were set into frames, marked with plain or fancy quilting patterns, and quilted by neighborhood women taking turns. When all the quilts were finished and stacked, a big supper, followed by kissin' games for the unmarrieds, ended the "quiltin"' and launched a few more "promisin's."
Quilts, comforters and blankets were not "store bought" in America until well after the Civil war. So the pioneer girl, from the time she could "push a needle" made quilts for her future home. She seamed her blocks together or "set" them with plain bands or blocks to make bed-size tops which she laid away to line and fill when the right man came along. At least a dozen tops should be ready and waiting.
Even when the materials were all grown on the farm, getting them into filling and cloth was too much work to risk on a girl's quilts till she was "promised." Home grown wool filling, not cleaned properly of its oils, got "smelly." Making cloth took "a caution" of time. And imported goods "cost like sixty."
Until the War of 1812 boomed cotton cloth manufacture in these United States, bright colored prints were "hard come by." But before the Civil war, cottons were plentiful, and calicoes, tops in quilting materials-were bright and beautiful.
PATCHWORK AND QUILTING WERE ANCIENT NEEDLEWORK
"Quiltin' and patchin' " were not a new American needle art. Chicago's Museum of Natural History shows old and new examples from around the world. Ancient Egyptian women cut the fancy medallions from worn garments and whipped them onto new. Eastern Siberia's women made dresses of white fish skin appliqued with a patch trim of dyed blue fish skin. The Ainu people of Yezo, Japan, appliqued dark blue cloth on their woven elm bark clothing.
A red flannel dance apron from Western Canadian Indians has eagle, flowers, whale and harpoons plus checkerboard border cut of white cloth and appliqued on. Our Pawnee Indians sewed dyed porcupine quills on whitened deer skin and appliqued it down the center of their buffalo hide blankets.
India's rich quilts of bright dyed taffeta lined with chintz, and of satin lined with taffeta, both over cotton fillings, and quilted with silk, were the marvel of medieval travelers. Chinese quilts of silks, and of cottons over wool or cotton filling came into Europe with the East India trade. Many were destroyed later for the gold thread used in their quilting.
Museums of Europe show local and Oriental quiltings and applique work. Comforters of quilted feathers, wool, and down were used in Germany and the North. Pieced quilts were common, but fine velvets and silks with gold and silver applique and stitchings dressed the beds of the mighty.
EARLY AMERICAN QUILTING MATERIALS
The immigrant pioneers brought all the covers they could, for India prints, ginghams and chintzes imported to America cost much more than in the old countries. So every precious scrap left from cutting new garments was saved for the scrap bag and patch box. Even the "good parts" of worn out clothing were saved.
As for thread, our great grandmothers wouldn't have been caught throwing away "a mite of it." Patiently they re-threaded their needles till the last inch was used. They had watched their mothers' tired fin- gers roll the fibers and spin that sewing thread.
Working the materials from flax field through retting, spinning, weaving and dyeing of cloth for quilt tops and linings was no picnic. Nor was shearing, washing, carding, spinning and weaving of wool.
You couldn't spin cotton seeds or quilt around them. The cotton gin wasn't everywhere, and cash money was "harder come by" than hands to work for home needs. So you picked out the cotton seeds. Hold your pre-Civil war quilt to the light and you'll likely see a seed here and there that some tired fingers missed.
PIECED AND APPLIQUED QUILTS
Most pieced quilts were for every day though some were company quilts. The One Patch, Brick Wall, Roman Stripe, Four Patch, and Nine Patch trained many a child's fingers. Scraps were cut to rectangles, squares, triangles, diamonds and hexagons and sewed up into a variety of patterns.
The square made grandma's Four Patch, Nine Patch, and Irish Chain. Triangle pieces made her blue and white Birds in Flight (or In Air). Her treasured Pine Tree was of green and white triangles with a rectangle for the trunk. Diamond shaped pieces made her Harvest Sun, Evening Star, and tulip flowers. She used the top from a lamp chimney box to cut the hexagon pieces she made into her "Old Fashioned Flower Garden" which some people call Mosaic.
Appliqued quilts were company quilts. The Garden Wreath, Oak Leaf, Four Flowered Tulip, Spice Pink, Princess Feather, and LeMoyne (or Lemon) Rose, were favorites. Grandma's bride's quilt was the Rose of Sharon, with green leaves and stems and red flowers.
Some appliques were made in blocks and seamed together. Others were basted in marked spaces on the quilt size muslin top. Patch edges were turned under by needle's point wet at the tongue to give it "hold," and whipped on. Grandma's Garden Basket was both appliqued and pieced.
QUILTING WAS A BEAUTY ACCESSORY
When the frames were set up, the lining pinned or sewed in, the filling spread, with a slight overlap to avoid a lumpy join, and the top smoothed on, a chalk line, or pencil and yardstick, marked the quilting pattern. Cross bar, diamond, and diagonal were plain quilting. Grandma often used the system of stitching inside and outside the seams of her "all over" pieced quilts.
Fancy quilting included the running vine, bellflower, daisy, fan, shell, oak leaf, feather and rope. A cup, plain or scalloped plate, biscuit cutter or pinking iron, paper tracing or card-board pattern helped give lines for the needle to follow. A loved aunt stitched the shape of her hand on my Garden Wreath quilt.
A thick filling was hard quilting even with a curved needle, for no quilter wanted to leave "tracks" longer than a sixteenth of an inch.
Early pioneer quilts with home-made cloth and thread were coarser throughout. Machine-made muslins, calicoes, chintzes and ginghams, pieced and appliqued, were quilted with fifty to seventy size thread.
America's history is in her quilts, in the materials and patterns named by pioneer women out of their hard and lonely life. Log Cabin, Indian Meadows, Trail of the Covered Wagon, Underground Railroad, Prairie Queen, Cactus Basket, Kansas Sunflower, Cowboy's Star, Road to California -the movement West is there. Quilts helped settle America.
Great grandma pieced her bride's quilt after her "promise" was given and it was the best her needle could create. Today American brides' quilts are treasures our great grandmothers built with their love and dreams over their needles and patches, long, long ago.