How to Date the Quilt?

One important part of appraising a quilt or any textile is accurate dating. Sometimes there is no doubt of the date, because the maker embriodered it onto the quilt or wrote it somewhereon the back in indelible ink. Sometimes a quilt was so obviously designed for a special occasions – such as the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago – that its date can be easily ascertained.

Most of the quilts that are available for collecting were made in the 19th and 20th centuries, although it is possible to find an earlier treasure for sale or maybe even in your own attic. However, unless there is a direct connection to the maker, the dating of quilts is not precise science. It is more like a mixture of detective work and educated guessing.

The most important clues to the age of a quilt are the stiches, the fabric and the design used. It must be remembered that fabrics, especially those used for patchwork and applique, often started their lives as other things (dresses or curtains) before becoming scraps and then part of a quilt, so they may be much older then quilt itself.

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Stitches

Stitching in quilting will help not so much in dating as in locating the origin of the quilt or the maker. Running stitches were usedin northern Europe, in Provence in southern France and in Britain for wholecloth quilting. Running stitch was also used widely in USA. In applique the technique of working buttonhole stitch and couched cording over the raw edges was known as Persian embriodery, a method used mainly in France, Italy and Spain, and still known by the French name broderie perse. In northern Europe, Britain, Germany and Holland,applique was made with turned-under edges, held in place with a slipstitch. In the Victorian era decorative embroidery was introduced over raw edges of heavier fabrics, such as velvet andbrocade, for crazy patchwork quilts.

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Fabrics

The main fabrics used in classic quilts are linen, cotton and wool for the wholecloth quilts. Fabrics that were printed for special occasions were probably used within ten years of the time they were printed. A knowledgeable quilt expert or appraiser can recognize hundreds of fabrics by their design and colour and can place them within ten or twenty years of their manufacture. Cotton fabrics were come to Europe from India (calico was plain cotton fabric, and chintz is hand-printed cotton). Western Europe (especially Britain and France) imported large amounts of those Indian cotton fabrics because of their popularity, but it resulted in protests of domestic weavers, and finally all import was stopped. The early settlers in America grew cotton as a crop at around the same time as the Indian cotton cloth was being imported, but they were not allowed to weave it. The exception was weaving for personal use and household. Also popular materials in that time were linsey-woolsey (linen and wool fabric) and fustian (linnen and cotton mix fabric).

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Designs

By the mid- 18th century French and English weavers were imitating the designs of India cloth with copper-plate printing technique. The original copperplates were printed outlines, which were then hand painted, as India clothes were. These early prints were mainly monochromatic. Early designs included alphabet, maps, historical events and heroes and similar designs, and usually were printed on handkerchiefs in medallion style. As printing technology became more sofisticated, designs become more complex – pictorial scenes, laurel wreaths and repeated patterns. Even after the American War of Independence in 1776 fabrics are still imported in United States. One of the first American printers was Hewson of Philadelphia, who got the grant rom the US government for his business.

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Colours

1790 – 1800 Dark colours such as red, brown or black as a background for printed flowers
1800 – 1810 Colours became drabber, with browns, yellows and olive green.
1810 – 1830 The backgrounds became lighter; dyeing technique was introduced as artificial dyes became available
1812 onwards The ground was unbleached, and designs were printed in blue, red and brown
1815 The favoured background colours were mushroom, green and lilac
1833 The first solid green printing dye available (no need anymore to overprint yellow on blue to have green)
20th century Silk-screen printing was patented in Britain; colour range is wide.

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Now that quilts become collectibles, sold at high prices, they must be evaluated or appraised. Fine modern art quilts and family heirlooms alike should be insured, especially if they are to be shipped to shows and museums. Dealers and auction houses are now competent to determine the value of the quilt in greater numbers than they were even ten years ago. There are also appraisals days held at many large quilt shows and at museums. Thefee is usually small and added security is well worth the trouble.

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