Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Stars in a Time Warp 2: Prussian Blue

Prussian blue reproduction star by Becky Brown
using prints from Terry Thompson's
Merchant's Wife line of 2013.

Vintage stars about 1840-1865
You might think the unknown quilter had run out of fabric and was forced 
to make scrappy stars, but there are two stars almost
alike. She seems to have planned it this way.

Prussian blue prints are one of the distinctive clues to quilt dating. American quilters created a fad for these bright blues from about 1840 to 1865. Prussian Blue is a mineral dye that colors fabric a variety of shades, the most distinctive being a bright royal blue. Unlike indigo, which works most efficiently as a background color, Prussian blue can be the figure in a print as well as the ground.

Vintage Prussian blue stripes

Vintage star about 1840-1865
Prussian blue was especially adaptable to ombre or rainbow shading.
The formula was discovered about 1700 and found quite useful in
paints and dyes. 

Vintage star about 1840-1865
Dyers often combined it with madder reds and pinks.

Vintage block about 1840-1865

As did quilters.

Vintage block about 1840-1865

Reproduction Star by Becky Brown
using Terry Thompson's the Merchant's Wife line

The dye's chemistry made it particularly complementary
to a brown called iron buff.

Vintage block about 1840-1865

So it's often seen with shades of this dull brown color.

Vintage block about 1840-1865

Vintage block about 1840-1865

Printers could push the dye towards green, producing
a rather flat blue-green that is also distinctive to the mid-19th century.

Prussian blue produced beautiful blues and buffs that
were fashionable for clothing.

Perhaps a wool dress in a Prussian blue and buff
colorway. These wide stripes were the look in
the 1840s and '50s, so the fabric in a quilt is an
excellent clue to a date for about 1840-1865.

Vintage top about 1840-1865
Original inspiration for Terry Thompson's 
Merchant's Wife line.

When you see a Prussian Blue reproduction snatch it up.
They are not often done.

The Merchant's Wife

It's difficult to market this type of detailed reproduction.
Most mainstream quilters do not buy it because they
do not understand its history.

Susan Ambrose alternated blocks of Terry's Prussian blue
stripes with her pink postage stamp blocks.
See more here:

Reproduction Star by Becky Brown using The Merchant's Wife 

Reproduction star by Barbara D. Schaffer

Barbara used a Prussian blue stripe,
from her repro scrapbag to make this star top, which she showed on her blog.

There are several shaded or ombre prints in
vivid blue in my Union Blues fabrics coming to
shops in March.

A few of the blues from my Metropolitan Fair
collection of Moda.

Dustin Cecil used them to make this star in the center
of a more complex block.

Reproduction by Bettina Havig, who added triangles
to the center square to get a fussy-cut frame

Pamela Weeks has done some Prussian blue repros.

And here's one from a collection called Prussian Blue.

Nancy Gere in General's Wife

Setting idea for your stack of star blocks:

Mid-19th-century quilt

Sash your stars with a Prussian blue reprint.

Feathered star from about 1840-1860
Collection of the International Quilt Study Center & Museum

Prussian blue sashing is a fabulous repro look.

Quilt dated 1864 from the North Carolina quilt project,
picture from the Quilt Index.

Prussian blue sashing in a quilt dated 1841

One More Thing About Prussian Blue

The old Prussian blue dye seems more colorfast in prints than in plain. The dye is fast to light, so it doesn't fade. If washed in acid solutions it doesn't bleed. But a strong hot alkali solution, such as laundry soap, breaks down the blue leaving a tan color. Solid blue cottons in nineteenth-century quilts are often streaked or faded. Continued laundering could completely eliminate the blue.

See more photos of mid-19th-century dresses in the dramatic striped style:

And more photos of Prussian blues old and new at previous posts:

Read about Prussian blues in my book America's Printed Fabrics, pages 54-57.

Carol Godreau & Maureen Gregoire with
a reproduction inspired by the quilt below in the
collection of Connecticut's Danbury Museum.

The original masterpiece is now on display in the show Anita Loscalzo has curated at the New England Quilt Museum, called "A Passion for Prussian Blue." See it before it closes on April 4, 2015.


Anna said...

I am fascinated by the dating done by color and combination is fabric. The round star block looks so modern!

WoolenSails said...

I love how the blues look in the quilts. I added some blues to my stash and plan on making a few this year.


Vic in NH said...

Thank you so very much for explaining the background of the Prussian Blue dyes and fabrics. I am one of the gals who is guilty of not choosing it very often because I did not understand it. I have some Pam Weeks and some of your Metropolitan Fair. Now I can really appreciate them and USE them, thanks!

Suzanne A said...

There's another nice example of Prussian blue print sashing in one of my favorite quits in the DAR Museum's current exhibition Eye On Elegance and in their online exhibition at


Jeanne said...

Sooo much to learn! Thanks :)

Chantal said...

I have a new favorite colour: Prussian Blue. I have to get my hands on some of that. It is so beautiful. Thanks.

Laura Lane said...

The lovely quilt from the Danbury, CT Historical Museum with the eagles is currently on display in the Prussian Blue exhibit at the New England Quilt Museum.

Barbara Brackman said...

Laura-I'll add that to the post.

Anonymous said...

Prussian Blue seems to come in a variety of shades and tints. I'll have to look carefully through scraps and see what I can find. Thanks for this thorough accounting.

Cynthia@wabi-sabi-quilts said...

These Prussian blues are gorgeous - that bright pop of color. Thank you Barbara for this wonderful education! I hope quilters who are on Instagram will post their blocks to #starsinatimewarp.

Sally said...

Any modern 'solids' out there that are Prussian Blue? (how clever, I never thought to check my solids for these colors!)

Barbara Nimmo said...

I'm absolutely loving this "Stars in Time Warp 2" quilt featured on your blog! The combination of Prussian Blue and those intricate star patterns is truly mesmerizing. It's amazing how quilts can capture history and artistry all in one piece.
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