Saturday, January 10, 2015

A Slave-Made Quilt?

Quilt attributed to a "black family in Texas."
Color and patchwork rival any abstract painting.

John Knotts wanted to know more about this quilt. Was it a slave-made quilt?

Detail of the center with note on left

He had no provenance other than the story that it came from an African-American family in Texas. An index card stitched to the front center said: "This quilt was Mother Ferguson's...."

Slavery ended in 1865 with the end of the Civil War. The primary question, therefore, becomes: Was the quilt made before 1865? If not, there is no sense persuing Ferguson genealogies and local histories to determine if the quilt was made by a person in slavery.

But the answer to that important question of age: Hard to Say.

The blue and white fabrics are probably combination 
wool/cotton stripes, twills, checks and chambrays.

Our first job is to analyze clues in the fabric. As the note says: "Even the material was made by hand. The wool was sheered (sic) and from this on down to cloth it was done by hand."
The note seems quite accurate. The various fabrics in the quilt look to be wools spun into yarns, dyed and woven into cloth. The detail shots indicate there are cotton/wool combination fabrics too.

The gray fabric and the white may be
all cotton. The purplish look to be blue and
red wool yarns crossed with white cotton yarn.

The various fabrics may have all been
hand-spun, home-dyed and home-woven, but this kind
of cloth was also factory-made.

There are many names for this common coarse cloth: Linsey-woolsey, linsey, hickory cloth, jeans cloth, Kentucky cloth. A piece of rough wool or wool/combination cloth is very difficult to date. People wore it in 1650, in 1850 and into the early 20th century in rural places like Texas. 

Man born into slavery photographed in the 1930s
by the WPA interview project. His well-patched coat
and coarse shirt have served him well for many years (and he
may be the second or third owner.)
Photo from the Library of Congress. 

The coarse wools are quite durable. Cloth woven in 1830 might still be viable in 1890. So some or all of this cloth could date to "pre-Civil-War." But is the quilt that old?

The other side shows the quilting

There are other clues to date in a pieced and quilted item. The quilting, for example.

The quilting design is a good clue to date---although not a smoking gun. It's one style clue in a group of clues. This fan quilting pattern (concentric arcs) is very typical of Southern quilts after 1870 or so. (It's not an excellent clue because there are a few exceptions to this rule.)

The style of the patchwork is also a fairly good clue. One can call this a make-do quilt, patchwork made of fabric pieces used in their entirety, not swatches cut for a piecework design.
The blue piece on the left here (perhaps a twill jeans cloth) looks to have been cut for a sleeve or a pants leg. Has the maker taken apart a worn pair of britches and layered them into the top

Or is it the top? Note that the paper index card is sewn on the busy side of the bedcover ----is this side the back?
To confuse the issue there is another cloth label,
now illegible, 
stitched to the other side of the quilt.

Could this almost whole-cloth side
have been intended as the front

and the cobbled-together, make-do side
as the back?

That question is probably irrelevant to the age of the quilt
but that make-do look is something we see far more of
at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th.

Embroidered wool quilt about 1800

Earlier patchwork quilts of wool tend to be more organized
and cut to patterns

Wool quilt, early 19th century.
Collection of the American Folk Art Museum

Quilts and comforters pieced of random wool shapes tend to date towards
1880 or later as in this one dated 1901. The fashion for crazy
quilts seems to have freed quiltmakers to use swatches as
they found them rather than trimming to pattern.

Quilt by Susanah Allen Hunter, Alabama,
collection of the Henry Ford Museum

Hunter's quilt is attributed to the 1930s.
It might best be described as a make-do quilt
of clothing scraps.

This 20th-century make-do quilt from Jonathan Holstein's collection
shows the same kind of long pieces, perhaps left over
from home sewing pants or factory-cutaways
left from machine cutting. One name is "Britches Quilt."

Based on the style clues in quilting and patchwork  I would conclude that the quilt in question is probably late 19th-century, made after the Civil War, and therefore technically not a "Slave-Made Quilt."

Linsey quilts from Merikay Waldvogel's collection

My Tennessee friend Merikay Waldvogel, an expert in linsey quilts made of these coarse wools, characterizes them as generally Southern in origin. Many were made after the Civil War to recycle old clothing that was too durable to throw away but too unfashionable and too uncomfortable to wear. They are not exclusively African-American but were made by Southerners of various backgrounds.

It's unlikely the Texas quilt was made during slavery, although the fabric might have been hand-made or the kind of factory-produced clothing fabric that slaves wore. 

A description of John's quilt:

Late 19th-century linsey make-do quilt by "Mother Ferguson," an African-American Texan, probably using worn clothing in a variety of home-woven wool fabrics in an unusually graphic design, appealing to contemporary tastes.

Contact John if you are interested in the quilt:
See more posts on linsey quilts I've written:


WoolenSails said...

Wonderful quilt and lesson on how to judge a quilt's age.


Judy said...

Wonderful quilt! I love that they used what they had, and I continue to buy. This made a deep impression on me. Thank you.

Vic in NH said...

Thank you for all the marvelous pictures and history of this quilt. Mother Ferguson must be chuckling at us from the great beyond for so much reverence to her handiwork because I'm sure she just took it for granted. It is wonderful!

Nancy said...

Another fascinating look into quilts made long ago. Thank you Barbara.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing! Love the quilt and the lesson on dating it!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post on the lindsey-woolsey quilts. Thank you.

Anna said...

amazing story...i can only pray my quilts will see more than one generation, :)

Anonymous said...

I wonder if a seasoned genealogist could determine who Mother Ferguson in Texas was. If so, that would be awesome to learn her story.

Anonymous said...

I love the quilt and the analysis of process. I disagree with the notion that it was not made by a slave. Maybe it was made after the civil war but that doesn't make the seamstress not a slave. May have been a slave their whole life. The war doesn't remove that status from their life.