My Monumental Puzzle!

Whilst seeking a quilt to feature in the history section of a book I was writing in the late 1990s, I found an interesting quilt for sale at the Minerva Gallery in Llanidloes, Wales. I felt the simplicity of its design would suit my needs very well and bought it, never guessing that it would take me on a journey of quilt research.

monument 01The quilt has six rows of blocks, arranged with three on each side pointing towards the centre. Each row has eight complete blocks, approx. 10 x 8 ins, per row, with half blocks at the ends of alternating rows, resulting in a not quite symmetrical layout.

Before putting it in my book, I needed to identify the block and determine a possible date for when it was made, the latter based on the fabrics within it. Trying to answer these questions raised others, some of which remain unanswered, chiefly because this isn’t a ‘museum quality’ piece & a point is reached where research costs could exceed the value of the quilt.

It was offered for sale at Minerva by the collector, Ron Simpson, who had obtained it at an antiques fair in Canada. He called it ‘Skyscrapers’, having seen the pattern named that in a 1930s women’s magazine (as yet untraced). He’d dated it 1940-50, for a reason to be discussed later. He also loaned me an image of a similar quilt, dated c. 1920-40, more Art Deco in appearance and less ‘scrappy’ with a deep red ground, instead of the cream seen on mine. The blocks were set vertically in 7 rows of 6 blocks.

Initial research involved talking about it with anyone I thought might be interested, then following up the ideas or clues this produced. I also posted an enquiry on an internet quilt history list.

Two similar blocks were noticed by my friend, Audrey, in Barbara Brackman’s  Encyclopedia of Pieced Patterns: one called ‘Monument’ closely resembled that in my quilt, except that it’s a square block; the second, called ‘Garfield’s Monument’, was also a square but with simpler piecing. Barbara agreed that my example most closely resembled the former, adding that the design had appeared in 1890 in the Ohio Farmer magazine. She said that it was a custom to put a person’s name on the second strip up from the bottom and recommended buying it (glad I already had!) because “these are rare. Any mourning quilt is rare.”

Another US quilt historian Wilene Smith confirmed this identification and agreed that such quilts were uncommon, whilst alerting me to a similar example in Quilts, A Window to the Past by Victoria Hoffman. This time it was called ‘Beehive’, but was still a square block. The caption said it’s “a rare pattern which looks as much like a mourning monument as a beehive” and dated it c. 1875. A more modern ‘Beehive’ quilt which I’ve seen used a ‘log cabin’ construction instead of the simple strips of my quilt.

Quilter Pepper Cory included a monument quilt in her book, The Signature Quilt, co-written with Susan McKelvey. Having seen several memorials in this stepped-pyramid design with the names of fallen soldiers of the Union army, she suggested that the pattern became popular after the American Civil War ended in 1865. After the assassination of US President Garfield in 1881, it was called ‘Garfield’s Monument’.

An interesting mourning print unusually brightened with accents of red

An interesting mourning print unusually brightened with accents of red

This particular assassination was exceptionally problematic because although Garfield was shot on July 2, he did not die immediately but was unable to fulfil his role. The Constitution did not include any provision for coping with day-to-day government in the event of a president being alive but completely incapacitated so all that could be done was to wait until he finally died, on Sept. 19.

Another ‘Garfield’s Monument’ block, somewhat different again, is listed in The Collector’s Dictionary of Quilt Names and Patterns by Yvonne M. Khin. Also the famous James Collection at the International Quilt Study Group, (University of Nebraska –Lincoln) holds a ‘Century of Progress Quilt, From 1833 to 1933’ with very similar blocks, though more complex, but which could have been inspired by the earlier design.

It was also suggested to me that the Monument block could have been renamed in the 20th century to lose the association with death, with ‘Skyscraper’ an obvious alternative. Other blocks also carry that name. In addition, discovering more about the syndication of patterns between publications, in Canada as well as within the USA, I learnt that the design needn’t necessarily be American in origin, as implied by Brackman’s suggested source.

Remembering that the quilt had been bought in Canada, I contacted the Canadian Quilt Study Group for advice on researching the fabrics. Nancy Cameron Armstrong said that fabric was not produced in Canada and never had been, adding that during the British Columbia Heritage Quilt Project, “both fabrics and patterns were found to be ‘the same’ as found in US projects”. However another source said that before WW2, Canada did have a thriving textile industry (using imported raw cotton) and that due to Commonwealth ties with Great Britain, and the proximity of the USA, Canada tended to take the best and/or cheapest imports of both countries.

This type of 'coral' design helps date the fabric

This type of ‘coral’ design helps date the fabric

Attempts to date fabrics are based on: 1, the style of printed design; 2, the technology most likely used to print it and 3, the particular colours used, including how permanent they have proved to be. All these aspects of textile production can be dated to broad periods as both printing processes and the science of creating new dyes developed. Of course, older technologies continued to be used alongside the new ones, at least for a time, but this information can be used to assign a probable earliest date for particular printing techniques.

In this case, I needed to remember that though textile technologies were developing everywhere, there could have been differences between the USA and Britain in the rates of change or the popularity of certain designs / colours. This approach to dating also reveals that dating plain (solid colour) fabrics is only possible where specific new colours appear, and likewise, dating stripes or plaids is only effective if ‘new’ colours are included. Dating plain white / off-white cloth, as used in the background of my quilt, is almost impossible.

An example of a mourning fabric which has retained its purple colour very well

An example of a mourning fabric which has retained its purple colour very well

We must also remind ourselves that fabric can lie around in some cases for years before being put into a quilt – so estimating a date of production does no more than estimate a date before which the quilt could not have been made. Besides which, as most quilters also know only too well, a quilt can be years in the making, with newer fabrics being worked in next to older ones.

Given a strong likelihood that these were American fabrics and without a comparable book on British materials, I used Eileen Jahnke Trestrain’s book, Dating Fabrics, to seek similar printed designs to those in my quilt. I laid out a diagram of the quilt, with the letters A-F across the top of the vertical columns of blocks, then numbered each block, including ‘1/2’ for where a row began or ended with a half block. I also noted that where half blocks existed on a row, they were of the same fabric at both ends.

An example of a woven check which is hard to date

An example of a woven check which is hard to date

With the exception of those, each block has a different fabric, sometimes with patches joined to make up the required length of strip and some now in poor condition. There are a few woven patterns but most are prints – the most helpful for dating. So next I made a table of the dating periods in Trestrain’s book and, working my way through the blocks, one by one, recorded what I thought, as objectively as possible, was the most likely date for each.

This exercise produced the following apparent spread of dates: none before 1830; perhaps 2 from 1830-60; 8 from 1860-80; 21 from 1880-1910; 13 from 1910-1935 and 4 from 1940 onwards. Even remembering how old my own oldest scrap in my collection is (!), this was both a wider spread and with an earlier ‘start’ than I’d expected, not least because of the date offered for the quilt at purchase.

What scenario might explain this spread?

My first idea was that, bearing in mind the probable associations of the block design, this was a ‘memory’ top, made maybe over a long period of time using fabrics salvaged from the wardrobe, carefully hoarded, by an elderly woman – because many of the fabrics have a feminine appearance, to my eyes at least. Secondly, the same concept of a stash of ‘grandma’s clothes’ could have been used by a descendant to make a mourning top by which to remember her. They could point to a block and say “I remember her wearing that frock to our wedding” – for example. My third idea is that of a family memory top, made by one person again over a period of time, but using fabrics collected from her family members – maybe even scraps begged from a rag bag ‘because I like it’ – which could account for the odd couple of much earlier dates. But I’ll never know ……..

A woven stripe pattern adds texture to this fabric

A woven stripe pattern adds texture to this fabric

The background fabrics used in the blocks are also a mixture. This maker didn’t buy new cloth in an exact amount for her intended project. Some of the plain white cottons look like sheeting – I have some old sheets that belonged to my grandmother (b. 1889). There are also two different white novelty weaves: one is a two-pattern stripe and the other is a stripe with a woven circle in it.

A different woven stripe with a circle motif

A different woven stripe with a circle motif

Any of these could be ‘new’ cloth, left over oddments from some other project, or they could have been reused. However block E3 definitely has a recycled background which shows signs of unpicked tucks. Lastly another white fabric bears signs of a very much faded lace print – maybe used because it had been a ‘favourite’ for some reason but too faded to photograph effectively.

A detailed examination of the quilt’s construction revealed that all blocks were hand-pieced by a neat hand and joined together in the same way. Maybe that supports the idea of an ongoing ‘pick up and put down’ project, for winter nights or as a pastime for a person who’s become less mobile.

In contrast the hand quilting is very poor. Either it was done by another person or else the person who’d made the top had become arthritic or suffered a severe deterioration of eyesight.

However, there are creases and fading in the top which aren’t consistent with the backing fabric of calico (muslin in the USA). To me this suggested that the top had seen use, maybe as a cover for something, before it was layered, quilted and finished by bringing the backing over to the front.

Two likely explanations can be mooted for this:
Marijke Kerkhoven, then Curator at the Museum for Textiles (Toronto, Canada) described the ‘mother-in-law’s legacy’ – a quilt top left with a note to a daughter-in-law saying it was specially left for her to finish!
The alternative is that having acquired the top, someone finished it in order to sell it more readily.

Given the ‘quality’ of the ‘finish’, I tend to favour the latter. Certainly it was finished after the first polyester batting was introduced in the 1950s because a bouncy example of this is what is inside it. I believe this is why it was labelled with such a late date. A well-known American quilt researcher, Cindy Brick, suggested that I give it a broad date span “c.1880-1990” so that the age of the fabrics is acknowledged clearly and not simply lost amongst my research papers.

Perhaps you can imagine that by that time, I had pored over the quilt more times than enough! I felt that very few fabrics really looked to me later than mid 20th century. But there was one which stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb – a 1960s/70s little brown print that was definitely ‘bodged’ in place. I thought it was probably a modern repair, maybe added when the quilt was being finished for sale. After some thought, I decided to photograph it for my records, then to unpick it, maybe in part, to see what was below.

The block hidden behind much later fabric

The block hidden behind much later fabric

My reward was finding a very worn but once attractive printed satin weave cotton, whose seam allowances proved it had originally been a ‘mourning purple’, now faded to brown. Very usefully, Trestrain states that during the period 1880-1910 purple dyes were often fugitive, fading to brown – which gives a firm date for this original fabric, adding it to the 21 already assigned to that period and eliminating one of the four blocks listed as maybe post-1940.

The background fabric of this block had also been repaired but investigation showed they were in an even worse condition, so they remain in place. I have covered the whole block with conservation net, along with several others. The unpicked patches have also been kept as part of the quilt’s history.

Close up, the unpicked seam shows a hint of the original colour

Close up, the unpicked seam shows a hint of the original colour

This proved to be a thoroughly engaging episode of research. It has been worthwhile because although I’ll never know exactly who made it or when it was made, I have extended my knowledge of period textiles. In the process of establishing a name for the block design, even though mine is a rectangular block, rather than square, I learned about practical research methods and I am comfortable with the idea that the maker of this quilt apparently ‘did her own thing’ with an existing block design – much as many quilters still like to do today.

Not least, there was also the bonus of discovering that this was a relatively rare pattern to find and that I was fortunate to have the chance to own it and care for it until it becomes someone else’s turn.

The Enclyclopedia of Pieced Patterns, Barbara Brackman, American Quilters’ Society, Paducah, KY, 1993  ISBN 0-89145-815-8, pp 120-121
Quilts, a Window to the Past, Victoria Hoffman, Museum of American Textile History, N. Andover, Ma., 1991
The signature Quilt, Susan McKelvey & Pepper Cory,
The Collector’s Dictionary of Quilt Names and Patterns, Yvonne H. Khin, Acropolis Books, Washington, D.C., 1980
Dating fabrics, a Color Guide 1800-1960, Eileen Jahnke Trestrain, AQS, Paducah, 1998