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