Quilts: 19th through 20th Centuries

On December 31, 1839, in McDowell County, North Carolina, Hannah and Pharoah, age twelve, were given as wedding presents by John and Rebecca Logan to their daughter
Margaret Ruth and her husband, Thomas Young Greenlee. Taking their new owners’ surname, the girl, a house servant, and the boy, a blacksmith, later married and had a daughter named Emm. We know little about them beyond this, except that the masterful quilt reproduced here was begun by Hannah Greenlee, perhaps in the 1880s, and finished by her daughter in 1896, sometime after Hannah’s death. As a freedwoman after the war, Hannah probably continued the type of work she performed as a house servant: cooking, cleaning, and sewing. She may have intended to sell or give the quilt to her previous
owners, since it remained with that family until they donated it to North Carolina’s Historic Carson House.

Hannah Greenlee's Crazy Quilt c. 19th Century

This quilt looks very different from quilts made in the colonial period, when such items were confined to homes of the wealthy, where women had leisure time to devote to complicated needlework. In colonial whole-cloth quilts, for example, the top was one single piece whose only decoration was the pattern of the stitching itself. In another type, printed images of flowers and other motifs were cut out of expensive imported fabrics and sewn (appliquéd) to the top as decoration.

Hannah Greenlee’s quilt is made of irregular scraps of fabric—some of them homespun—that are stitched together in the Crazy pattern developed in Victorian England and popular in America in the second half of the nineteenth century. Many early Crazy quilts were made of luxury materials like silk, velvet, and satin. The random pattern is a flexible and thrifty way to construct a quilt, permitting small scraps of any size or shape
to be used. The design can be worked in an overall pattern or—as in Greenlee’s quilt—in separate squares that are then combined in a grid. Because the grid adds a degree of order
to the chaos, this type is known as a Contained Crazy.

In each square of her quilt, numerous small strips are joined into ladders that lean this way and that. These stacked, colored bands resemble a type of traditional textile made in Ghana and the Ivory Coast called kente, in which bars of color and pattern are woven in thin strips that are then joined side to side to make wider cloth. Many scholars believe that elements of this African tradition, especially its aesthetic preference for asymmetry,
inventiveness, and irregular blocks of bright color, live on in many African American quilts.

Each square of Greenlee’s quilt is a separate abstract composition that is constantly changing depending on the direction from which it is viewed. Fancy stitching—sometimes following the outlines of the piecing, sometimes independent of them— creates another level of patterning as do the designs within the separate scraps of cloth. As in most quilts, the top layer is attached to two more beneath with stitching (quilting) that goes through all three. The bottom layer, called the liner, can be plain or decorated to make the quilt reversible. Sandwiched between the top and liner is the layer of insulation, called filling
or batting, that traps pockets of air to give the quilt its warmth.

The invention of the cotton gin in 1793, the opening of a textile factory in Waltham, Massachusetts, in 1814, and the development of the power loom would make domestic printed fabrics widely available and affordable. By the 1840s, women were purchasing commercially printed fabric to sew rather than weave the fabrics themselves. Quilt patterns multiplied and were spread by family and friends, printed in ladies’ magazines, and ordered through catalogs. The introduction of the sewing machine in the second half of the nineteenth century made sewing faster. In addition to still-usable parts of old clothes, scraps left over from a dress for the first day of school or Father’s Sunday shirt were saved to make quilts that were rich with personal memories.

Susan Noakes McCord was a farmwife who lived in McCordsville, Indiana. She raised vegetables, chickens, and seven children, and still found time between chores to make
more than a dozen quilts. Many of her creations were based on standard quilt patterns that she transformed. This quilt, like Greenlee’s, is a Contained Crazy quilt, but instead of
rectangular bars, wedges of fabric are joined to form irregular wheels. The pattern is based on one called Grandmother’s Fan, in which each uniform block of the quilt contains a fan set in the same corner. McCord varied the size of the fans and set them in all four corners of most blocks, aligning them to form fractured gears that twirl across the surface. Nothing is still. Wheels struggle to maintain their symmetry and rims wander off to do-si-do with other discs. Everywhere there is the nervous tremor of the zig-zag stitching.

Hannah Greenlee, Susan Noakes McCord and Amish Quilts

Some of the most accomplished quilting is found in Amish examples made in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, from the late-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. Before the
incorporation of synthetic materials around 1940, Amish quilts tended to be made of fine wool. These quilts were given only a thin layer of filler, making delicate needlework possible. Although the stitches on these quilts average from nine to eleven per inch, stitches as small as eighteen to twenty per inch have been used (most quilts average six to eight stitches).

The Amish trace their lineal descent from the Anabaptist movement, which arose in the early 1500s as a result of the Protestant Reformation. Anabaptists were pacifists who practiced adult baptism exclusively. The largest Anabaptist sect was Mennonite, named for founder Menno Simons. In 1693, a group of Mennonites led by Jacob Ammann, seeking a
stricter observance of their religion, broke away to become the Amish. Heavily persecuted, the Amish were drawn to America by the religious tolerance promoted by William Penn.
In the 1730s, they established their first sizeable communities in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

At the core of Amish life are religion, community, and family. The Amish, who live in small communities, value conformity to communal rule (the Ordnung), which varies according to local custom. Much of the technology developed since the Industrial Revolution is avoided. They aspire to a life of non-violence, simplicity, and humility; anything considered vain or reminiscent of the military (such as buttons or moustaches) is rejected. Amish clothing is generally patterned on late-nineteenth century rural farm attire.

Men’s suits are black or dark blue, and simply cut. Women’s dress is made in a variety of solid colors (generally avoiding bright red, orange, yellow, or pink) and usually includes some form of head covering.

Amish houses are modest, and quilts provide not only pattern and bold color but an outlet for women’s creativity. Amish quilts made in Lancaster County between approximately1875 and 1950 are noted for their rich, solid colors, symmetrical
design, and emphasis on a central motif: characteristics that give the compositions a sense of quiet grandeur. Within a limited number of quilt patterns, the color choices allowed by the restrictions of the Bishop (the communally elected leader of a district), may nevertheless permit a broad range of visual effects. The strong color contrast in two of the quilts causes the bars to begin to quiver as you look at them. In another, slender bars will appear to shift. The pulsing energy of the star quilt is held in check by the wide purple border that just touches the tips of its points.

Many quilts are enriched with stitches in one or more patterns — diamond shapes, feathers, wreaths, vines, and flowers — that add another layer of technical and visual complexity. Although earlier quilts like those reproduced here are thought to be the result of individual efforts among the Lancaster County Amish, in more recent times women often have gathered together to share their needle working skills in community events called quilting bees or “frolics.”

January 24, 2012 PowerPoint Quilts 19th through 20th Century

Have a good week! – Mrs. S

“But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will shall be added to you.”        Matthew 6: 33

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