Saturday, March 31, 2012

Period Quilting

Detail of Circle of Friends
Machine Quilted by Deb Jacobs

Period guidelines for quilting designs aren't easy because we quilt and use fabric so differently than the quilters of 150 years ago. Deb's machine quilting on the long arm machine as in my gift quilt above shows some of today's virtuoso quilting. Feathers are a traditional design but the way she arranged them across the surface of a scrappy sampler quilt is very up-to-date.

This sampler quilt from the mid 19th century would probably have been considered scrappy. The biggest difference is the use of white which gave the quilter a place to show off.

Although the more typical example has quilting that is not very dramatic. This  detail from a quilt dated 1863 shows the quilting design... outline around every patch---something we called outline quilting or self-quilting when we were documenting quilts in the quilt projects 25 years ago. The quilting is NOT "in the ditch" but about 1/4" away from every seam line. There is additional quilting in the white squares in the corners---an X.
See more about this quilt which belongs to the Historical Society of Nyack NY here:

This outline quilting is not a clue to date. It's common over the centuries in all different eras. It's a style that works better for hand quilting than for long-arm quilting.

Here's a detail of a Civil War-era quilt from Tennessee that shows outline quilting in the patchwork and then a grid in the white areas. See more of this quilt by Mary High Prince at the Quilt Index here:

Another grid in the blue field on one of those Peterson's Magazine flag quilts.
But here the grid is a triple line. The idea of double and triple line quilting, whether grids or diagonal lines, is very 19th century. The stars are outline quilted and notice the pretty little leaf and vine in the stripe. Also notice there is no filler quilting behind that leaf and vine.

It's more typical for mid-19th-century quilters to use a lot of filler quilting behind the fancy motifs so they really popped out. Above the parallel diagonal lines are probably less than 1/4" apart, which make the leaves look like they are stuffed although they have no extra stuffing.

Close quilting is the rule---the stitches per inch are not so important as the lines per inch. This grid is probably 1/2" apart or less.

Here's a quilt with a hodge-podge of designs but fairly consistent triple diagonal lines in the border background. This quilter did echo quilting inside the applique, repeating the red diamond shape three times to give a close-quilted look.

Triple diagonal line quilting is very typical, particuarly in borders.

All this doesn't translate to machine quilting very well, so I always tell my machine quilter to do what she likes to do. It seems like we should not be trying to imitate but rather interpret the past.


Crafts4others said...

love the first sampler, the designs and the fabrics.

Lesley said...

Thank you for sharing such wonderful projects and stories. I love what you said about interpretation of the past.

Mari Carmen, (Onox) said...

está precioso este proyecto, y las ideas para el acolchado excelente. Gracias.

WoolenSails said...

I got some lights finally, to go with my jefferson daughters, now I need to start cutting out some appliqué. I plan on using some of the large layer cake for the dresses.


Leeanne said...

Lovely post. reproduction quilts are just starting to take off here in New Zealand & as a professional quilter I like to keep in mind what type of quilting would best suit each quilt. So what you have shown I will keep in mind for when I get my first reproduction quilt.
Have a fabulous weekend.

Janet said...

Another great post! I love to learn all I can about how quilts were quilted in the past.

Amy said...

Thanks for this post Barbara. I use both the longarm and my Bernina to quilt my quilts. Since getting more into the reproduction quilts, I have really become obsessed with trying to figure out what type of quilting do do on a quilt -- that will not only look good, and appropriate to the quilt, but also appropriate to the time period. It is a fine line to walk. In fact just this afternoon I was going to load a small basket wall hanging top onto the longarm, but I still can't make up my mind as to how to quilt it. I had come up with the idea of doing some echo quilting about a 1/4" away from each seam in the basket blocks - and your post about that type of quilting confirmed my thoughts.

Dreamquilter Elke said...

Dear Barbara,
the Civil War Quilt is great and the new book will stand on my wishlist for christmas. I had a ask : Can you make the new Acrobat from the block 32 Carolina Lily - I can´t find the new link. Thank you!
Elke from Germany
P.S. I will make this quilt with Civil War fabrics. How can I found out, if the fabric is a new print from old fabrics? Which can I use?
please answer:

Jean Huets said...

Hi, Barbara, though I am all thumbs when it comes to sewing, I am fascinated by fabric and the associated arts of couture and quilting. Do you ever do "guest blog posts"? I would love for you to analyze the fabrics seen in one of my favorite Civil War photos, at my blog "Blades of Grass" at

If you are interested, please contact me : jeanhuets at gmail dot com

Thanks very much!