The Learning Center - Hosted by Pat Sloan

Hi everyone! It’s Michele here for today’s Learning Center post on Quilting History. I have four fabulous guests, Amy Milne, Judy Anne Breneman, Julie Silber and Diane MacLeod Shink, sharing their stories, photos and expertise. Also, we’re giving away two copies of the digital scrap booking software, MyMemories.

Pat will be back with a Spring Quilt Market post at the end of May and then in June, we have something very exciting planned for the summer months!

Little Known Stories from Quilt History

By: Judy Anne Breneman

Judy Anne Breneman

In 1998, I began writing articles about quilt history and posting them on my web site. At that time there was essentially nothing about the topic on the web. At first I wrote about the basics and as I researched for each article I found that there was always much more to be learned than I expected. The result of was my Tour of America’s Quilting Through Time. Over the next 10 years my sites grew until I have now posted over 200 articles online.

I love the way quilt history tells us about the lives of everyday women, something we rarely see in a history book. Because of this I’m always especially pleased when I discover something in quilt history that I would never have expected. I thought it would be interesting to tell you about a few of them here.

I hadn’t been looking into quilt history long before I learned that tobacco companies used to give away little silk pictures in packages of cigarettes. Women loved collecting them for decorative projects including using them in their Crazy Quilts. I imagine it helped stop the wife from complaining about their husband’s smoking. Other promotions were cigar ribbons and tobacco flannels. Read more at Tobacco Premium Quilt History.

Much later, I learned about a truly unusual style of quilt. Go to Tile Quilts: An Unusual Style of Applique to learn how they were made.


The Internet brings us together with like-minded people from all over the world. Through my site I became acquainted with Isabelle who wrote Quilting in France: The French Traditions for me. Follow the link to see the exquisite needlework that was done.

On a quilt history discussion board, Dutch historian An Moonen mentioned that after World War II ended, women in the Netherlands made symbolic patchwork skirts. The story behind the skirts is one you will never forget. Read it at Dutch Patchwork National Celebration Skirts.


Quilt history can be a way to discover the lives of individual women as well. If I hadn’t heard about the quilt made by Elizabeth Keckley I would never have read more about her and learned her unique story of going from slave woman to the dressmaker and assistant to President Lincoln’s wife. I’ve written her story at Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly . To find more information and see photos of the quilt go to Elizabeth Keckley and the Mary Todd Lincoln Quilt [PDF file].

I love books that tell stories about quiltmakers along with the photos of their quilts. “Quilts of the Oregon Trail” by Mary Bywater Cross is one such book. In it Emma Giesey’s quilt is shown along with a little about her life. Emma was a part of a communal society that settled in Aurora, Oregon. Historic fiction writer Jane Kirkpatrick was looking through the book and became fascinated with Emma. After a good deal of additional research Jane wrote a series of three books about her life. The Aurora Colony Museum tells about my visit there.


I’m ending with a scandal, a big one that wasn’t uncovered until years after it occurred. Read all about it at Quilts and the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.

I hope you enjoyed my tour of little known quilt history. It’s proof certain that history isn’t all dry and boring dates and facts.

Alliance for American Quilts: Document – Preserve – Share

By: Amy Milne, Executive Director, the Alliance for American Quilts | Email Amy

Every quilt has a story. A signature quilt made to raise funds for a cause, a double wedding ring quilt celebrating a marriage, and a simple patchwork quilt made from a uniform or a favorite dress to keep a family warm, all document lives. Quilts are historical documents that contain dates, names, verses, symbols, and even maps. When the quilt has just been made, and the owner still nearby, the story is full and rich and complete—there for the asking and the telling. But if the two are separated before the story has been preserved—the quilt is sold, given away, or lost, or the quiltmaker passes away—the story inevitably fades with the quilt.

The nonprofit Alliance for American Quilts was founded in 1993 to support and develop projects to document, preserve, and share the history of quilts and quiltmakers. The Alliance brings together groups and individuals from the creative, scholarly and business worlds of quiltmaking to advance the recognition of quilts and their makers in American culture. A dynamic board of volunteers from across the U.S. and abroad work with a staff of two, Executive Director Amy Milne and office manager Debby Josephs, and project partners at MATRIX: Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online at Michigan State University and the Michigan State University Museum, to carry out core mission projects.

A growing corps of passionate annual members provide financial support and volunteer service that form the framework for the Alliance’s work to save and share quilt history. An annual small quilt contest and a growing events program not only provide key funding for projects, but also provide opportunities to document the work and priorities of today’s quiltmakers.

The Alliance’s core and partner projects are:

  • Quilters’ S.O.S. – Save Our Stories is our grassroots oral history project preserving the stories of today’s quiltmakers from all over the U.S. and abroad. Volunteers use a simple oral history protocol to interview quiltmakers about their quiltmaking, their inspiration, and their lives. The interview transcripts and photos are then shared on the Alliance’s web site and the materials are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Q.S.O.S. interviewees (now numbering over 1,000) are as diverse as the quilts themselves, including beginners, professionals, traditional quilters, art quilters, long arm quilters, hand quilters and many who fit somewhere in the midst of these labels.
  • QSOS Interviewee Barbara Pate interviewer Alice Helms
    QSOS Interviewee Barbara Pate, Interviewer Alice Helms
  • The Quilt Index is an online database of quilt records bringing new access to detailed information and images of quilts from museums, historical societies, guilds, documentation projects and private collections. The Quilt Index is a partnership project of the Alliance, MATRIX: Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online at Michigan State University and the Michigan State University Museum. Currently undergoing an internationalization phase, the project aims to add quilt collections from institutions and private collections out side the United States. Users can now browse and search quilts from the South Africa Quilt History Project and the Royal Alberta Museum. An ongoing goal is to work with state and regional groups to add existing quilt documentation to the Quilt Index, making the resource more complete for quilters, researchers, educators, collectors, genealogists and quilt enthusiasts everywhere. An easy way to access the Index and help support its maintenance and growth is to download Quilt Index to Go, our app for iPhone, iPad and Android devices.
  • QuiltIndex_screenshot

  • Quilt Treasures presents multi-media portraits profiling key quilt revival pioneers including quiltmakers, historians, collectors, teachers, and business leaders. Each of the fifteen portraits includes videotaped interviews, a photo gallery, biography, bibliography and timeline telling the story of these visionary figures. Video clips include quiltmaker Yvonne Porcella describing how she used a box of sweet cereal to negotiate time to quilt when her kids were small. Quilt historian Cuesta Benberry tells the story of how the WPA tulip pattern became so popular during the Depression. Quilt Treasures is also a partnership project of the Alliance, MATRIX: Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online at Michigan State University and the Michigan State University Museum.
QuiltTreasures - Merry Silber
Quilt Treasures - Merry Silber

The resources of the Alliance are free to users via the Internet but depend on support from the community to provide this access. Annual memberships begin at just $25 and volunteers can get involved by making and donating a contest quilt or by contributing your time as a Q.S.O.S. interviewer or transcriber in your community. The deadline for the 2012 quilt contest, “Home Is Where the Quilt Is” is June 1st—still time to enter a 15″ x 19.5″ house-shaped quilt with the chance of winning the Grand Prize (your choice of any Handi Quilter machine quilting system). More information here.

To find out how you can get involved with Q.S.O.S. visit:

Next year the Alliance will celebrate 20 years of documenting, preserving and sharing the rich history of quilts and quiltmakers, ensuring that even after the two are separated the story will never fade. Join us!


History of Quilting in Canada

By: Diane MacLeod Shink, AQS Certified Quilt Appraiser, Member of PAAQT

A silk patchwork coverlet with gold appliqué initials “IN” and dated “1726” resides at the McCord Museum in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Made in the framed medallion style, it was brought to Kingston, Ontario from England in 1850. This hand stitched patchwork (made over 100 years before the sewing machine was invented) is the oldest dated patchwork in North America. Like other traditions quilting techniques were brought to Canada by early settlers. Cotton and silk yard goods were imported form Europe through major seaports and were always available for a price.

Quilt M972.3.1

The earliest wool quilts can be dated to the first quarter of the 1800s. Sheep were kept in the pioneer days and their wool, processed as part of the home industries, was used to make utilitarian quilts. Flax plants thrived in the Canadian climate so linen was also produced. A few references to quilt making have been found in early 19th century diaries but quilt making was considered one of the many duties of a housewife along with producing and preparing food and managing the household.

The simple nine patch, stars and pinwheels were first used to replace the framed medallion and wholecloth styles. It was not until the second quarter of the 19th century that repeating block designs were used in quilt construction. The pictured Star and crescent pieced from wool clothing was made in the late 1800s. During the last half of the century with improved transportation and communication quilt patterns were developed and shared in magazines and newspapers.


During the early part of the 19th century, goods moved freely across the borders so cotton fabric was imported from the United States. The largest Canadian Cotton Mill was built in Marysville, New Brunswick in 1861 but it was necessary to import the raw cotton. Women liked to share and display their work, documented by prize lists of quilt categories as early as 1863 for exhibitions and fairs. There is more historical information in the book Canadian Heritage Quilting, Creative Designs written by Karen Neary and myself.

Quilting CoverCHQ

Women met in small groups at quilting parties and worked individually to finish quilts that were necessary to keep the family warm in cold Canadian winters. No statistics are available but I suspect that a larger majority of quilts were made or at least pieced during the long winter months when sometimes even the men in the household helped with the quilting. Most churches had women’s missionary societies or sewing groups who constructed quilts as part of fundraising activities. In my collection I have a quilt dated 1880 which is believed to have been used as a presentation quilt to a minister at a Baptist church in the Annapolis valley of Nova Scotia.

Quilters were never as prolific in Canada as in the United States partially because of the increased cost of cotton goods. Research in the Maritime provinces also yielded the information that ninety percent of quilts in museum holdings are patchwork style. It is uncertain as to why so few appliqued quilts made, perhaps influenced by the increased cost of material.

One of the identifying factors I see for Canadian Quilts is the extensive use of white in piecing, settings and backs of quilts. I find it interesting that today’s Modern Quilt Movement endorses the use of white in their 21st century quilts, “the more things change the more they stay the same” as we say here in Quebec. Few regional differences occur now because of widespread use of the Internet and the ease of global communications.

The star and crescent quilt pictured here is part of Diane’s collection of Star design quilts which have been exhibited at Museums in eastern Canada. Diane is available to do lectures and trunk shows about her quilt collections. Information about Diane and her work go to and

Canadian Heritage Quilting can be ordered from Karen, price is $22.95 + 5% GST + $10. Shipping for Canadian orders contact Karen at

My Love of Quilts

By: Julie Silber – The Quilt Complex


Old Quilts and I met somewhat late in my life.

It was 46 years ago, and I remember that moment vividly … it seemed to happen almost in slow motion.

I am among those who instantly fell head-over-heels in love with quilts the moment we first saw one! In my case, that beautiful moment came in a small house on Nob Hill in San Francisco, late in 1966.

I arrived in San Francisco a year after two close Midwest college friends settled there. When I arrived, I came to their home. Each had an old quilt – Linda’s quilt, made for her by her Grandmother in the 1940s, was on her bed, and Pat’s, a graphically gorgeous thrift shop buy, was hanging on a wall.

I was smitten – truly not too strong a word. Right there in a small living room at 128 Bernard Street, began a journey that changed my life. Suddenly and most unexpectedly I had met the passionate focus of my life’s work.

Right away, I started collecting old quilts. I also began to explore just why I had had such an immediate and intense response to them. After all, I had grown up with “Art.” Our home had a lovely collection of original paintings, lithographs and sculpture. My parents had taken us to art museums, and I had studied Art History in school.

So I was familiar with the visual arts. Yet I had never, ever reacted to any other work of art as I did to those first quilts. The experience “got me in the gut.” I knew it was not simply a visual thing ~ but I did not understand it, nor did I have words for it.

So as I searched for and collected quilts, I also contemplated the powerful way they affected me. I found some other passionate “quilt people” pondering the same kinds of questions, and we bonded. We talked and questioned and studied together. (Not much had been written about quilts in the mid 1960s – not yet!)

One of my college friends (also a quilt fanatic) and I opened an antiques store specializing in quilts near San Francisco in 1971.

“Curiouser and curiouser,” (to both borrow and misuse a phrase) my informal studies continued.

Collaborating with others, I curated quilt exhibitions at art museums, wrote articles, books, and catalogs. All along, I was learning more and more about quilts ~ and as important, the women who made the quilts, the people who lived with them, and the times in which they were made.

Now, in 2012, we have come to understand that quilts are more than blankets that keep us warm. They are also more than beautiful textiles. Much more. They are objects that hold stories and histories ~ they hold the lives of the women who made them.

Quilts can carry messages to us across time: information about what everyday life really was like for ordinary women who came before us ~ our mothers and great grandmothers.

Traditionally associated with the bed, where primal experiences of life take place – birth, sex, illness and death – quilts are literally layered with many, many levels of meaning and function. Social, emotional, political, aesthetic, educational, celebratory, and more…

To me, old quilts are an endlessly fascinating resource of information and simply joyful to behold. I am not alone.

Quilts from Julie’s Collection
















anchor of hope detail

Recommended Quilting History Books:

Julie Silber sent me these recommendations:

  1. Shaw, Robert. American Quilts: The Democratic Art, 1780-2007. New York: Sterling Publishing, 2009. The first and only comprehensive study of American quilts and quilt making from its earliest days to the present.
  2. Kiracofe, Roderick. The American Quilt: A History of Cloth and Comfort. Clarkson Potter, 2004. “The American Quilt charts the course of quilting in America, from the earliest whole-cloth and broderie perse quilts through the emergence of the block style in all its regional and popular permutations. Special sections are devoted to quilt subgenres, including Amish quilts, Baltimore Album quilts, mourning quilts, and African-American quilts, that are highly prized by collectors today.”
  3. Silber, Julie with Pat Ferrero and Elaine Hedges. Hearts and Hands: Women, Quilts, and American Society. The best overview of the impact of women and quilts on American society in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, including information on quilts in the Civil War, women’s suffrage, temperance and prohibition, and much more. Out of print but copies are available from Julie Silber. Email Julie at
  4. Volckening, William. Beauty Secrets: 150 Years of History in One Quilt Pattern. The cover quilt is in the exhibition. An exploration of how quiltmakers have interpreted a single popular pattern from the mid eighteenth century to the present.

Please share your recommended books in the comments below.

Additional Links:

If you have a favourite quilting history web site, please share the link in the comments below.

MyMemories Suite Give-Away

In my mind, quilting history and scrap booking go hand-in-hand as both tell stories and preserve memories for future generations. The kind folks at MyMemories have offered two copies of their digital scrapbooking software to two lucky readers.


MyMemories Suite software is a complete digital scrapbooking solution that provides a comprehensive powerful set of creative tools no other scrapbook software can offer. With its intuitive workspace and enhanced time-saving features, this application is perfect for a beginner to create a complete album in minutes, or to empower the design pro to build a scrapbook album masterpiece.


You can make a beautiful scrapbook an interactive memory experience for anyone who sees it. Use simple one-click options to enhance your scrapbooks, with music, narration, video, and even the Internet. Go beyond pictures by showing off video of the birthday party, or record a narration to capture the memories that pictures alone cannot. With My Memories Suite you simply don’t look at a scrapbook – you experience it!

Enter the give-away:

To enter, leave a comment below sharing something of your own quilt history, or of a quilt you’ve collected or rescued. Two winners will be randomly selected next Wednesday, May 23rd.

Congratulations to the two winners. Look for an email from me.


winner truus 5

winner 11

winner susan 11

Quilting History
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18 thoughts on “Quilting History

  • May 17, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    For several days I drove past a house that was using a quilt to block the windows in their garage. Finally I got the courage to knock on the door and made an offer for it. They got an old sheet and $20. I got an interesting string quilt. The quilt got a home. Everyone was happy….

  • May 17, 2012 at 3:41 pm

    I have a 1930s quilt on my bed, gifted to my husband & I for an anniversary present. The top was hand-pieced & sewn by my husband’s great aunt, and when she passed away in her 90s, my MIL found it amongst her belongings when she was helping clear out the home. My MIL had a friend back, and hand quilt it for us. What a wonderful gift, and how I wish I had developed an interest in quilting while Aunt Carmel was still with us!

  • May 18, 2012 at 8:39 am

    I bought myself “The Standard Book of Quiltmaking & Collecting<" by Marguerite(?) Ickis, when I was in college. I never made anything–just looked at the pictures and dreamed.

    I once had a tied quilt made of mostly flannel and heavy-duty cottons. I got it from a girl who was from Indiana. The ties were of red yarn. Due to illness when my kids were small, I had washed it using bleach along with the detergent. I don't remember if I wore it out from lack of proper care, or if I lost it/gave it away on one of our many moves. I still want to make my own tied quilt.

    trilliumcreates AT gmail DOT com

  • May 18, 2012 at 11:53 am

    When my husband and I were on holiday in the UK ,I saw an old quilttop in a shop.At that time ,I didn’t make quilts myself,and I loved to have that top.But we went on and didn’t buy the quilttop. I still regret not buying the top.
    Now I’m making a small quit for my sister ,whose’s husband past away last year.
    I’m using his hankerchiefs to applique a small heart on a 5 cm square piece of fabric.
    I’ll hope,she will love it.

  • May 18, 2012 at 2:31 pm

    My sister has a quilt made in the 1940’s by our grandmother. My sister isn’t a quilter but I am. I covet that quilt!

  • May 18, 2012 at 5:00 pm

    My mother appliqued butterfly blocks during the years she was teaching a rural one room school, but stashed them away after marriage and farm wife and motherhood duties occupied her time. For my 12th birthday present in 1952, she asked her mother (my grandmother) to put them together with sashing and with the heip of her friendly quilting friends, hand quilt it. I truely cherish this treasure, and have often used it on one of our beds.

  • May 18, 2012 at 6:44 pm

    I don’t own any antique quits, but admire them wherever I come across them. So much history is hidden in these quilts – who knows when somebody is looking at our quilts and wondering what we were thinking… I guess I better get started capturing my newly made quilts.
    Thanks for a chance!

  • May 20, 2012 at 11:47 am

    I rented for one year in one of the Cotton Mill “worker’s” houses in Marysville. The Marysville Cotton Mill building has been lovingly restored on the outside and much interior architecture survives. The building currently houses government offices. There is a small museum onsite commemorating Mr. Gibson, the owner, builder and operator of the mill and displays photos and tools used in the industry. My mother can remember my Grandmother mentioning trips to the mill to buy “seconds” or “cut-offs” by the pound to use in her quilts. Loved this article!

  • May 21, 2012 at 11:21 am

    I am starting my own quilt/family history. Since I wasn’t raised by my birth mother, I am fanatical about leaving a legacy for my 6 children. I label all my quilts and scrapbook for them all thought I am light years behind. Maybe digital scrapbooking would help me catch up.
    Great giveaway. I’d love to be the lucky winner.

  • May 21, 2012 at 11:34 am

    I don’t have any old quilts but I do enjoy seeing them at quilt shows that I have gone to. I would love to know the history behind all of them. Many years ago I became interested in quilting and since no one seemed to be doing it at the time I bought myself a book and was going to teach myself. Unfortunately the book I bought stated that if you did not sew the quilt by hand you were not considered a real quilter. I started a quilt and decided it wasn’t for me as I did not want to sew by hand at least not a whole quilt. Today I am getting back into quilting again and I love the new methods and attitudes about finding an easier quicker way of making a quilt.

  • May 21, 2012 at 11:46 am

    I paid $1.00 for a sad quilt in a church garage sale. I managed to salvage some pieces of it and am making stuffed toys for my grandchildren.

  • May 21, 2012 at 3:31 pm

    • • • Sadly, I didn’t grow up with quilts and didn’t know anything about them until much later in life. Now that I have found them, I don’t sleep with anything else.

  • May 21, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    I did not grow up learning how to sew or quilt. My mom was a crochetor. A frind got me interested in quilting after seeing two quilts she had made. I try to rescue quilt tops from auctions and estate sales and complete them to be a queen size quilt.

  • May 21, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    I have an orphan quilt, which got dumped by its owner, who didn’t have any more fabric to finish the top. So all I have is a 10-15 year old center of a top in purple, greens and yellow. None of the used fabrics is on sale any more! And all the colors that are on the market changed and do not really match! Tomorrow I will take the time to make a complete top from it. I bought a yellow that almost matched and washed it twice, now it is a 95% match and I found 1 yard of one of the fabrics. That has to do. I am looking forward to an exiting day!!

  • May 21, 2012 at 11:09 pm

    I would so love a copy of this software! I have one quilt top that my grandmother started … a Grandmother’s Garden quilt … that even if I never finish it, I will always feel like I’ve got a sweet part of my quilting history and my grandma with me! :)

  • May 23, 2012 at 6:36 pm

    My Mother loved quilts, but didn’t really sew. She did lots of “repairs” on our clothes. She passed her love of quilts on to me. She made sure that I had sewing lessons – two sessions actually. This Christmas I made both of my brothers quilts in Mom’s honor. She’s been gone 20 years. I wasn’t a quilter until 10 years ago. Thanks for a great giveaway! Would love to try this software:)

  • May 23, 2012 at 8:44 pm

    I still have the first quilt I made, at age 16. It is a copy of a family tradition referred to as ‘the sick quilt’. As a child, my Mom laid under the velvets, silks and satin quilt made by her grandmother whenever she was ill, soothed by fingering the satin binding. By the time I came of quilting age I had heard the story all my life and laid under what was left of that quilt. I decided I wanted my own ‘sick quilt’ and went at it. I found a Kleenex* box was a perfect template to replicate the quilt and carefully drew around it with a pencil onto the wools and velvets I had left from the many clothes I had made. It is pretty ratty by this time, but I won’t part with it!

  • May 25, 2012 at 6:49 am

    I was lucky enough to inherit the one & only full quilt that my grandmother ever made. She sewed everything under the sun & was known far & wide for her chicken scratch. I treasure this beauty. I also found some partial blocks in her stash that I’m still trying to find the inspiration for how to use them.

Comments are closed.