Saturday, September 6, 2014

Accurate Quilting Frames for Civil War Re-enactors

A vignette from American Home Scenes in 
Harper's Weekly April 13, 1861

A reader wrote that she was interested in quilting on a frame at Civil War re-enactments. What kind of quilt frame would be authentic?
"I have looked at pictures but it is hard to see how the frame itself is made. I want to be 'period' correct for the Civil War but I am not getting anywhere as to how the frame itself should be."
Luckily for the historically-minded, quilt frames have not changed much in about 200 years. The typical frame is four boards fastened together.

The earliest depiction of a quilt frame I've found is this 1813 painting The Quilting Frolic by John Lewis Krimmel.

See more about the painting and the painter here at my 1812 blog from 2012:

The young woman in the background is unfastening
a patchwork quilt from the frame. It's time for the post-work dancing to start.
There seems to be a strip of fabric attached
to the wooden frame. The quilt is pinned or basted to the fabric.

These wooden frames have to be propped up at a level so a group of quilters seated in chairs can work together to quilt the layers. The four boards are not permanently fixed together. They are moved in and out as the quilt is rolled up.

The women at this quilting party about 1910 have propped their 
frame up on the middle rungs of the chair. They have rolled up
the quilt so only one quilter can work at each end.

Women at the Dorcas Society in Buxton,Maine. 
Their hair is dressed in the style of about
1900. Apparently you can face the ladder-back support chairs in or out

or at an angle.

From Gleason's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, Oct. 21, 1854

In this 1854 cartoon of a Quilting Party in Western Virginia people are sitting in the ladder back chairs and the frame is held up by four posts. Any clever carpenter could have figured out a system of special posts.

 A similar frame in Alvin, Wisconsin about 1940,
photo from the Library of Congress.

If you do a web search for old quilting frame you find
some interesting solutions to the problem of elevating
the frame.

If you don't have a carpenter around you can
drive 4 forked-sticks in the ground, but I wouldn't
advise this.

Posts also hold up the frame in this photo from perhaps the
last quarter of the 20th century. Note the frame handily holds
canes and purses. This quilting group may have a factory-
made frame, an item I'm guessing wasn't available until
the 20th century.

The Quilting Party
Edgar Melville Ward
Collection of the International Quilt Study Center & Museum

Ward's 1892 painting shows a set of legs
with the wooden boards fitting into them, something
that looks like a commercial quilting frame.

You find photos of frames held up by sawhorses. I
know nothing about the history of sawhorses so I
would be dubious about using this rather stable prop
as a Civil-War-era solution.

World War II Red Cross workers with a frame
propped up by sawhorses.

Another option you see in 20th-century photos, particularly
of Southern quilters, is the frame strung from the rafters.
This Oklahoma-born woman living in Kern County, California
 quilted on a frame in a small migrant cabin about 1940. The frame
can be pulled up to the ceiling when the space is needed
for cooking, sleeping etc.

Women quilting, perhaps in a basement, about the
same time, using a hanging frame that is
fastened with hooks or hardware
attached to the ceiling.
It looks damp down there.

Another Library of Congress photo showing
a resourceful woman quilting in a smokehouse.

North Dakota State Historical Society

The earliest photo I've yet found of a suspended frame. 
The women photographed in 1888 are from the Pendroy settlement in North Dakota.
I looked for Southern roots but found only the Pendroys last lived in Iowa.

Read more about the family and the neighborhood here:

I wish I could find some earlier photos of frames hung from the ceilings, but until we do, we should probably not consider this an authentic mid-19th century type of frame. Besides, it's not really practical for a Re-enactment site.

Next week. More on period frames.


Butterfly George said...

I never liked history much but I have to say I am really enjoying your history blog! In the picture of the ladies in WW2 I can relate to their frame. I turn 70 soon and was taught quilting by a woman from Iowa who was 25 plus my senior. She used a wooden frame and "c" clamps as shown in the picture. I also remember as a child seeing family members using chair backs and the pulley system to suspend quilts in odd rooms. G

Suzanne A said...

I may be wrong but I think there's written mention of a quilt frame dropped from the ceiling pre or circa Civi War. I'll look for it. As you say, unless a house or cabin is part of the reenactment, it's not going to help your reader. As a resident of a very small New York City apartment, I've always wanted to try it. With some kind of automated lift and lowering mechanism of course. Re your frolic illustration I was shocked to see the Garden Maze pattern in the quilt which I had thought was a more recent invention for sashing. Love reading your excursions into the past.

WoolenSails said...

I think I would love to use a frame like that and have the group of ladies help me quilt it, lol. I love hand quilting but it takes so long and my free motion tends to go all over the place.


Jeanne said...

GREAT article and pictures!
Thanks ~ Jeanne

pinkdeenster said...

I have the wrench used to tighten the quilting frame that hung im the barn on my great-grandmother's farm!

conny's quilts said...

What an interesting story, thank you. I love all those greats pictures!

Carol Stearns said...

I loved reading this! So informative. Thank you. It shows women are very resourceful!

Linda Christianson said...

Very interesting. Hand quilting does take up lots of room. The basement was cool and the smokehouse was warm. How the quilt was anchored to the rod is also interesting. Did it have four sides or was it round? I have used duck tape with leaders; now we can can have loop tape and leaders or a zipper and leader. When did the leader come about?

Nancy said...

I have my mother's old quilt frame which belonged to her mother and unknown before that. I'm 70 now so this is an oldie. It's just four thick oak boards with round holes every couple inches that my mother would hold together with round clothespins. I have those clothespins too!
My hubby made me adjustable (up and down) legs to put the old boards on. Works like a charm!!

Brenda Sanders said...

I live in the Boston Mountains of north west Arkansas, my folks mostly came here before the Civil War. I like to say that I grew up under a quilting frame, as some of my earliest memories are of my grandma, mother, and various aunts quilting. The only kind of frame I knew of until I was in my teens was one my grandpa made, which was 4 boards with holes bored into them about every inch. They hung from the ceiling on the old haystring, and were rolled up to the ceiling every night. The holes were for stretching the frame out (there was a spike nail long enough to go through the corner crossed frame), and you could thus roll the quilt smaller as you quilted. There was canvas nailed to the frame for pinning the quilt in. I still have the frames, (and the house!) But they hang upstairs instead of in the front room.

Flickenstichlerin said...

Thank you for this article. I quilt my large tops in just such a quiltframe. It is so comfortable. Have posts ab out how to build and set up a frame in my blog too.
Greetings, Sylvia

quiltfool said...

My Great Grandmother, in Northern Louisiana quilted on a wood frame, held together with pegs and suspended from the ceiling in her kitchen. When she wanted to quilt, she went to the corner, untied the cord and dropped the frame. When she wasn't quilting, she'd pull the cord and the frame went back to the ceiling. There were two ceiling light fixtures and the quilt hung between them. Just a little folklore for you that I saw in the late 60's, early 70's. My Mom has that frame now and has promised it to me. Lane

Anonymous said...

I recently purchased (what I hope is a quilting frame), there are several pieces of wood that have numbers on them and along the wood are little nails sticking upwards rather closely together.
I sure would love to know if it is a quilting frame and how the pieces would fit together.
Any and all help would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you
Lynn Borum
e-mail (


Barbara Brackman said...

Lynn, I think what you have is a frame for drying lace curtains.

Sadie Jay-Edwards said...

Saw horses are quite period, as the basic saw horse goes back centries. They would have been a log split down the center to create the flat surface and a variation on the sawbuck to support it. If you take a look at civil war punishment- a fellow lashed to a sawhorse or a sawbuck would be an example to others to stay in line and follow orders.

Dane said...

My husband's mom had a old wooden quilt frame. It has "Stretch Master #37" engraved on it. Anyone have any information on it?