Researching Quilt History

This quilt could not have been made before 1808. See below to find out why.

Quilts contain a fascinating wealth of information and each one has its own unique story.  Even if very little is known about the maker, careful examination of the fabric, methods of construction and overall style of a quilt can tell us about the social and historical context in which it was made.

Provenance and family research

Any pre-existing information about the quilt can be helpful and is a good place to start.  Knowing who made the piece or through which side of the family it was passed down can allow you to use family history resources to track down where it could have been made and a possible date range.

However, anecdotal evidence passed on through the family can also be problematic.  Information can be repeated incorrectly and family myths can grow into historical fact.  Whilst personal stories add great depth and interest to historic textiles, they have to match up with the material evidence. Even if your family is convinced a quilt was made by your great grandmother in the 19th century, if the fabrics were not made until the 20th century then there has been some error.

Fabric dating and style

The dates of the fabrics within the quilt can provide important clues as to when the piece was made.  Certain fabrics were only available at particular times and developments in technology and fashion led to different designs and dyeing techniques.  Very broad historical developments include:

  • the popularity and availability of printed cottons from the end of the 18th cetury
  • changes in dyeing and printing techniques such as the introduction of roller printing in the early 19th century
  • the invention of synthetic aniline dyes in the mid 19th cetury which were used to produce brighly coloured silks and velvets
  • the creation of man-made and synthetic fabrics in the 20th century

Coupled with particular patchwork styles, this can give a good indication of a general time frame.  Within that time frame, books and further research can narrow the dates down further.

Dating a quilt is not always a straightforward process. The fabrics within a patchwork piece may span several decades.  Fabrics were saved over many years and particularly treasured or expensive fabrics could be kept for a long time before they were included in a patchwork project.  In the same way, caution must also be exercised when using paper templates as a dating clue. Templates were often recycled from used letters, envelopes and accounts, as paper was an expensive commodity. The date on a paper template only indicates that a quilt cannot have been made before that date.

The quilt in the photograph above features fabric made using the lapis technique whereby madder red and indigo blue could be printed directly next to each other.  This process was invented in 1808 and so cannot feature in a quilt made before this date.

Where to look for advice

The British Quilt Study Group is an excellent place to look for advice.  A specialist interest group of The Quilters' Guild, members are dedicated to establishing and maintaining high standards for all quilt-related research. Guild publications which are a useful starting point are:

  • Quilt Treasures: The Quilters' Guild Heritage Search (1996)
  • The Quilters' Guild Collection: Contemporary Quilts, Heritage Inspiration (2008)

These and other quilting books can be bought from the Quilt Museum Shop.

See the Quilt Museum and Gallery web site for examples of over 400 items from The Quilters' Guild Collection of heritage and contemporary quilts.