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Resources: Fabric Through History

March 5, 2012

One of the first things I notice about an antique quilt is the fabrics and fabric colours used in the quilt top. Both fabrics and block design are the best clues an appraiser can use to date a quilt, should no written information exist (such as a quilt label – all of my own handmade quilts come with a unique code that allows the purchaser access to full documentation of the quilt).

I own three of my own Great-Grandmother’s quilts, which were probably made sometime in the 1930s. They are in excellent condition, sewn on a treadle machine, the same one still in the family to this day. They are all hand-quilted, with batting that is horrendous by today’s standards, and in general there was no additional binding added – just fabric folded over and stitched. I’ve found newspaper articles online that mention my great-grandmother and her quilting group. Sometimes I like to open them all up and hang them out along the banisters to air, or sit under one and have a quick nap. As far as connections to family and history go, you really can’t beat a handmade quilt made by one of your own.

When I find books on how fabric is made, what fabrics were used throughout history, and how innovations were developed to dye and print fabric – those books stay checked out until they are due back. Looking through the double-pinks salesman’s sampler cards and mourning prints tucked into diaries, feedsacks and sugar sacks and wood blocks used to print the fabric, I’m transported. This is not unusual – ask any quilter about their fabric “stash” and you’ll get an eye roll from her husband – fabrics are fascinating. From any period in history. And how we create and use them are continuing to change.

Here are a few resources that I love, have used through this project, and would recommend:

Pieced Quilts of Ontario (ROM) - Available via Amazon.comPieced Quilts of Ontario
This book, as you remember, was purged from my library but they borrowed one for me through an Interlibrary Loan. This ROM softcover is worth tracking down. Although the photos are black-and-white, there is a section explaining where each quilt was made and its pattern. The Tumbling Blocks quilt was made in my area of York Region.

 

The American Quilt - Available through Amazon.comThe American Quilt: A History of Cloth & Comfort 1750-1950
A resource that every quilter (or quilt-lover) should have. There is an unbelievable amount of information regarding every aspect of quiltmaking, including a Fabric Chart timeline that gives fabric, pattern, and colour trends throughout the decades, starting in 1775. American-centric but useful for this project as Canadian timeline would be similar.

 

America's Glorious Quilts - available via Amazon
America’s Glorious Quilts
This book is HUGE. Full colour quilt photos of rare, beautiful, antique quilts and large-print sections explaining how each trend (such as Crazy Quilts) came to be so popular during particular time periods. Also a great resource for learning how basic quilt patterns “work” and the names of blocks. Includes a primer for quilt collectors.

 

The Thames and Hudson Manual of Dyes and Fabrics - Available on Amazon.comThe Thames and Hudson Manual of Dyes and Fabrics
A fascinating tour of how far fabrics, dyes, and printing have come. Includes some very technical information if you are so inclined but also contains plenty of photos and diagrams to explain how the fabric throughout time has been produced.

 
 

Quilts: A Beautiful History - Available at Amazon.comQuilts: A Beautiful History
A miniature coffee table book, with historical information tracing quilt history, plus a gallery of full-colour photos that is useful not only for sourcing various quilt styles and dating quilts and patterns, but for learning the names of the blocks.

 
 

300 Years of Canada's Quilts - Available via Amazon.com300 Years of Canada’s Quilts
This book has also been purged from my library (grrr!) but is so full of information about quilts, fabrics, and the Canadian women who made them I’m ordering one for myself. This book is also cited by Margaret Atwood in her end notes as a resource used for writing Alias Grace.

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