An antebellum silk quilt
In November 4, 1853, The Richmond Dispatch recorded the handmade items seen at the local agricultural fair.
"Silk bedquilt made of cast off dresses, by Jane, at night. Mrs. Evans."
Everyone in slave-holding Virginia would have understood the code.
Silks in plaids, stripes and solids fashionable for
mid-century women's dresses
Did Jane keep the quilt since she made it on her own time at night?
Also notice under the mention of a "mammoth cake of soap" there is a straw chair: "The handiwork of an old Virginia darky." Perhaps this man with no name at all was a free black.
Another provacative reference I recently came across:
In her book The Reconstruction of White Southern Womanhood, 1865-1895, Jane Turner Censer quotes Jane Alston writing her oldest daughter Lucy:
"Well, my quilt is in the frame, and Ella [her youngest daughter] and I are putting some regular darkey quilting on it."This code is a little harder to understand but author Censer explains that post-Civil-War changes including poverty and lack of slaves forced women into doing work they considered beneath them. Work traditionally done by slaves was hard to reconcile with one's aristocratic self-image.
"Regular darkey quilting" perhaps a code for labor-intensive handwork?
Pre-Civil-War quilt with heavy quilting, cording and stuffed work
in the pattern we often call North Carolina lily.
So we can conclude that at least in the Alston family of Warren County, North Carolina, the slaves had done the quilting. Is it true, as Censer writes, that "antebellum planter wives...almost never quilted?"
The answers would require a lot more evidence, but both descriptions add a little to our understanding of pre-Civil-War quilts from slave-holding states.
Another heavily quilted variation of the Carolina Lily
Jane Crichton Alston's letters are unpublished. See more about them in the Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hillhttp://www2.lib.unc.edu/mss/inv/w/Williams,Lucy_Tunstall_Alston.html