Saturday, October 26, 2019

Conclusions 3: Who Made These Panel Quilts?

Similar panel medallions featuring the central Trophy of Arms panel 
from families in the Charleston, South Carolina area

When we began looking at Southern chintz quilts and panel quilts in particular we looked for family and neighborhood connections, figuring women who were related or were neighbors might have worked together to make similar quilts with the same fabrics. What connected the two quilts above?

Wallace Nutting staged photo "Birthday Flowers" about 1915
Nostalgia as history

The Alston and Read bedcovers are examples of pieces handed down in families who lived near each other in both their Charleston and rural plantation homes.

The Alston's town house still stands on King Street

Both families had a city home and a plantation home; both were extremely wealthy before the Civil War when the quilts were made. Both were members of the plantation aristocracy with fortunes based on rice and cotton produced by hundreds of slaves.

The Read's plantation house Rice Hope also survives.
The quilts' centers

How did the quilts come to look so much alike in style and fabric?

Perhaps the makers sewed together socially, perhaps they attended needlework classes together,
perhaps....

1850 French fashion plate

Date? Late 19th-century depiction of early-19th-century quilting party

It's hard to unlearn our views on 19th-century quiltmaking.

Almost identical centers from North Carolina and South Carolina.

But we often found similar quilts with no plausible link between families or locations.

 Mary Jones Jones (1809-1869), Liberty County, Georgia
Special Collections at Tulane University
Mary mentioned quilts in her letters
 collected in the book Children of Pride.

We read a good deal about the planter aristocracy in town and country, their social life, household effects, interconnected genealogies, economic framework, household slaves and their needlework accomplishments.

Illustration by Beulah Strong from Aunt Jane of Kentucky, 1907

We came to see that we were basing our understanding of how sewing fit into the lives of the antebellum Southern aristocracy on the wrong model, the familiar model of sewing and quiltmaking as a social event, which we see in our own lives and in accounts going back for generations in much of the U.S. But not in plantation society along the southern Atlantic coast. 

Mary Boykin Chesnut & Molly,  still Mary's slave when these South Carolina
 studio portraits were taken in the early 1860s.

These women lived very different lives from their Northern peers.


A better model would be the one sketched by William Dunton in the 1940s when he encountered a group of similar quilts made in slave-holding antebellum Baltimore. He attributed them all to one woman Achsah Goodwin Wilkins. Rather than stitching all the quilts Achsah is thought to have been the designer. Recent research by Ronda Harrell McAllen draws the conclusion that Achsah's extended family and servants probably generated this body of medallion bedcovers.


We can view the Baltimore chintz bedcovers as made by professional seamstresses to formula constructions in connection with stores selling fabric (the Wilkinses were in the dry good business). We propose the same business model for the chintz quilts from the deep South. Someone (more than one someone) had a good deal of chintz panel fabric, a fashionable design sense and a crew of skillful needlewomen.

We see in these quilts found in private collections and museums a general Southern style of applique medallion, characterized by an economical use of fabric: large pieces of floral chintz, stripes and panels. (Small pieces require more seams and proportionately more fabric.)


They are also economical in the sense of an economy of handwork, requiring little stitching time. Placement and composition of the elegant chintzes in a good deal of white space is the signature style in these bedcovers. The more we looked the more we saw a professional hand.

MacMillan Family, North Carolina project
North Carolina Museum of History Collection

Charleston Museum


We also noticed how cleverly the seamstresses made use of every scrap and what a lot of scraps some of them had. So much "cabbage"---left overs---from various panels and chintzes implies that the stitchers had access to a lot of surplus parts---the type of fabric use one might see in a workshop producing numerous related pieces rather than in one individual hobbyist's sewing basket.

Quilt attributed to Catherine Barnwell Barnwell
Charleston Museum

Catherine's quilt is one of the exceptions to the general look of Carolina chintz quilts. Her panel quilt was possibly made as hobby needlework. A workshop would have a hard time stitching profitable bedcovers from labor-intensive hexagon patchwork.

How a Workshop Might Distribute Bedcovers

There are many ways that the once-wealthy women who passed these southern-style quilts down might have come to own them.

Detail of the Barnwell quilt

1) The general assumption by families and many museums is that ancestors stitched the bedcovers as a pastime. This is a possibility for some such as Catherine Barnwell's but in many families the  formula bedcover is the only example of fine needlework handed down that can be attributed to the woman. Sewing such a fine piece would seem to require a repertoire of needlework skills and a collection of other heirlooms that are missing.

2) We now believe many were purchased as finished quilts or finished unquilted bedspreads. The plantation families bought them as luxury items in Southern commercial centers, most likely Charleston and Savannah, perhaps Columbia and Augusta. Like their silver, china and furniture, expensive bedding reflected an elite, elegant lifestyle. Workshops and importers catering to the planters provided a substantial commercial base in the southern cities, which had a large class of tradespeople free and slave.

George Stacy photo, Library of Congress
Charleston metalworker's eye-catching sign
Charleston's mechanics --- the people who produced the goods---
were a combination of free whites, free blacks and slaves hired out by their owners.

3) Some bedcovers were a combination of workshop and plantation family needlework.

Philoclea Earl Eve's quilt at the Atlanta History Center is quilted
in a cross hatch of diagonal and straight lines.

For example, one might purchase an appliqued top and quilt it at home. Much evidence exists of slaves doing quilting and the simple quilting here is the kind of finishing one might expect to see done by women who spent most of their time at other duties. A few of the chintz pieces are elaborately quilted, which might reflect a skilled quilt marker and needlewoman (free or slave). 
"For Sale: A finished seamstress....cuts and fits with 
unequaled elegance and precision."

We'd guess that a workshop might also offer quilting in the utilitarian grid quilting often seen in these.

 Basted center, unfinished piece
Historic Columbia Foundation

4) Workshops may have provided what we'd call kits, pieces with basted chintz designs for hobbyists to finish. We've seen a few examples of unfinished patchwork, including the above basket design featuring a floral panel from South Carolina.


Similar in design to a finished basket piece in a nearby museum. 

The idea of a basted center adds much to our hypothesis that some of the bedcovers were designed, cut and basted by professional seamstresses and purchased by hobbyists who finished the applique and had them quilted.,

Unknown maker, location, Arizona project and the Quilt Index.
Lenna DeMarco's collection
Style indicates coastal southern origins.

If workshops existed there must be evidence beyond the style and techniques obvious in the quilts. 

Sewing workshop depicted in 1862
Hundreds of women are listed as dressmakers,
mantua makers, milliners and plain seamstresses, but quiltmakers....

We still are looking for evidence of these seamstresses----the designers who supervised quiltmaking workshops and the women who stitched. After years of reading advertisements, fair records, diaries and letters we have yet to find mention of such places.

Colonial Williamsbburg Collection

One exception: A panel quilt passed on with the attribution that
it was made by professional quiltmakers the Boyle sisters in
Petersburg, Virginia.

 How could there be a class of invisible women?

Perhaps this woman could have told us.
Next post:
Two panels we forgot to index.

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