Indiana Quilt History

2016 Indiana Bicentennial Celebration

Brief History of Indiana Quilts

(Review is taken from the “Quilts of Indiana“, Crossroads of Memories, Indiana Quilt Registry Project, by Marilyn Goldman and Marguerite Wiebusch, Indiana University Press 1991. Pictures of example quilts are from websites as noted with each photo.)

The history of quilting in Indiana reflects the culture and life in our state over the past 200 years. As we celebrate the birth of Indiana let’s look at some interesting facts about its development.

Early 1800’s: Frontier Folk Art

Quilting was introduced to the American colonies primarily by the English and Dutch. Since they settled mostly in the northern climates they needed more protection from the cold and thus the need for warmer clothing and bedding. Thus quilting developed out of necessity. In Europe the comforters were mostly whole cloth filled with wool, feathers, or straw like a mattress. Because cloth was not widely available in the United States it had to be imported or saved from used clothing. Garment scraps were stitched into patchwork scrap quilts which have evolved as an American art form.

After the Revolutionary War English settlers moved westward across the Appalachian Mountains through Ohio and into the Indiana territory bringing with them the New England quilts and blankets. Early settlers used the Ohio River, Lake Michigan, and the National Road beginning in Cumberland, Maryland extending westward from Richmond through Indianapolis and Terre Haute. Although Indiana had just become a state, by 1818 two thirds of the Indiana was still occupied by the Potawatomi and Miami Indians. The early American Indians for the most part did not quilt. Instead they traded skins and hides for blankets of wool.

Indiana quilting seems to have begun with whole cloth quilts made in New England and later brought to Indiana. The early English and Dutch settlers brought with them their skills of growing, spinning, weaving and dying their own fabrics. When they could not produce fabric on their own, they resorted to trade or barter of chickens, eggs, or skills for fabrics, primarily the colorfast, oil-dyed Turkey red cottons. Many quilts of this time period were the Turkey red cotton usually accompanied by a home dyed green that often lost its color and faded into a yellowish, bluish, or even tan color. The fabrics were dark hues typical of chintz, cut out, carefully arranged on a white background cloth and appliquéd into a medallion and border motif. These quilts were frequently formal quadrant styles divided into four sections which were identical or very similar. The sections were butted together to resemble whole cloth styles of Europe. Later the four sections were divided by sashings of solid fabrics or appliquéd strips with swag designs. The beginnings of the quilt of repeating nine blocks dates to this period.

Appliquéd quilts during this period frequently featured flowers particularly the rose. Favorite blocks were the Rose of Sharon, Lancaster Rose, Ohio Rose, Indiana Rose, and Harrison Rose. Large stars were also popular for this era like the Star of Bethlehem or Lone Star. The star design also lends itself to additional patchwork or appliqué of flowers and birds in the large plain corner areas to complete the quilt.

The quilting designs of this period were the patterns of clamshells, rainbows or Baptist Fans, lines (single, double, or triple parallels), squares, and diamonds. Borders contained fans or twisted rope patterns. Quilting of outlines of pieced and appliquéd shapes became time honored quilting techniques.

1850-1900’s: Civil War & Victorian Age

The Industrial Revolution in America brought textile mills which used the cotton grown in the South and made fabric more available. This new source allowed quilters to make planned, formal quilts. The invention of the sewing machine with its many home uses prompted quilters to try piecing, appliquéing, and quilting. The production of fabric changed also from hand wood block printing and copperplate printing to use of silk screen and steel roller printing. Colors brightened as fabric dyeing changed from vegetable dyes to a chemical industry.

During the Civil War Indiana only had one recorded battle at Corydon but there was much suffering and hardship for those at home. With the men away fighting in the Indiana regiments at Vicksburg and Gettysburg,  women were burdened with the responsibility of  running farms and businesses.

These changes that were taking place in the country also affected the quilt world. The quadrant style quilt was dropped in favor of smaller blocks. Appliqué was still being done but elaborate white work was seen less and less. Pieced quilts became more numerous. Log cabin styles developed and quilts using small pieces were popular including the Irish Chain, Trip Around the World, Mosaic, and Boston Commons. These scrappy quilts were becoming very popular because numerous small pieces could be recycled into these styles. Since the Civil War brought grief to many women, they constructed “memory quilts” from the clothing of the soldiers or their mourners.

From 1837-1900 the Victorian Age brought sweeping changes to Indiana lifestyle. More people began to live in cities, transportation improved with the railroads; and manufacturing grew rapidly. In the 1880’s natural gas was discovered in central Indiana and the towns of Muncie, Anderson, and Kokomo became boom towns. Victorian women in Indiana were the first to have electricity, telephones, sewing machines, and indoor plumbing. They decorated their homes with dark furniture, screens, ornate draperies, and covered every surface with bric-a-brac, photos, fans and other ornaments.

Quilting in the Victorian Age also took on a very distinctive look. Crazy quilts became the most distinctive style. The crazy quilt was constructed using a foundation to which pieces of wool, silk, or brocade were sewn. The seams and  patches were often embellished with embroidery stitches. Another quilt type during the Victorian Age was the signature quilt which was often used as a remembrance gift or a fund raiser. Names were written on the blocks with India ink or embroidered. Temperance Quilts were another product of the Victorian Age. These quilts often used medium blue and white incorporated into the Drunkard’s Path pattern.

Scrap quilts continued in this era with the ultimate scrap quilt being the “charm quilt.” Quilt groups formed to share their fabric. Because the quilter shared or traded their fabric the quilts were sometimes called “beggar quilts.” The goal was to trade with others the “charm squares” until the quilter had no two pieces alike. Then the quilter used the squares to make a single template design.

Early 1900’s: Indiana Quilt Guilds, Marie Webster, & Depression

For women social life in the rural areas was very limited. The quilting bee became a ritual of life. Group quilts were done of necessity and for gifts and dowries. The Ladies Aid Society provided another social outlet for women. Present day quilt guilds are descended from these traditional forms of women’s activities. Our own Common Threads Quilt Guild was organized in July of 1988 and was held in Greenfield at the Farm Bureau Building with approximately 15-18 ladies in attendance.  Local county fair competitions were the forerunners of the quilt show and competition. The emphasis was on craftsmanship and “stitches to the inch” rather than solely on design or originality. Magazines and newspapers  began to promote readership or syndicated columns featuring patterns for pieced, appliquéd, or embroidered blocks. A rural quilter in Medaryville, Indiana, won honorable mention in a quilt contest promoting the 1939 World’s Fair.

The most notable quilter during this period was Marie Webster from Marion, Indiana. As a pioneer quilt designer, superb quilt maker, and an innovative entrepreneur she had a major influence on the direction of 20th century quilt design. National attention was drawn to her when four of her appliqué designs were featured in the January 1911 issue of the Ladies’ Home Journal. The beautiful quilts were done in soft pastel colors and called Pink Rose, Iris, Snowflake and Windblown Tulip.  The designs were quite new because of their simplicity, quiet beauty, and restrained elegance.  These early designs were followed by nine more appliqué patterns for cushions. Marie continued to publish quilt designs in the Ladies’ Home Journal for the next twenty years. Pattern designs were printed in the magazine’s supplemental needlework catalog. Her floral basket quilt in 1927 was entitled, “Pink Dogwoods in Appliqué” and was widely circulated in the needle work journal, Needlecraft. In 1920 Marie formed the Practical Patchwork Company, a mail order pattern cottage industry. Women working in her home in Marion cut patches from colored tissue paper to form models of the quilt blocks. They also drew full sized patterns printed on a draftsman’s type of blueprint paper. Her quilts were sold by major mail order companies including Marshall Fields of Chicago. In addition to patterns her company offered boxed quilt kits, basted quilt tops, and fully completed quilts! Her patterns were copied and distributed under several different names by other commercial companies. Few other people have had such a great as influence on 20th century quilting as Marie Webster.

During this period the Indianapolis Star became the most prolific quilt contest sponsor in the state of Indiana. One of its early contests featured the Nancy Page Quilt Club pattern series called “Garden Bouquet.” Series quilts became popular in the 1930’s and contained twelve or more different patterns blocks. These patterns were published at regular intervals in newspapers of the day.

The roaring 20’s were set back by the Great Depression. Many city dwellers lost their jobs and returned to the farm. The railroad was in decline but the automobile was on the rise. During those years Indiana quilters elevated the scrap quilt to an art form. The most popular patterns in pieced quilts were Grandmother’s Flower Garden, Double Wedding Ring, and the Dresden Plate. A special shade of green with a muted tone is generally recognized as the prevailing color of 1930’s quilts. It was frequently combined with pink, lavender, or yellow in pastel hues. After 1939 the colors of the quilts became bolder and brighter. World War II inspired a revival of red, white, and blue.

1950’s to 2000’s:

After World War II women were expected to leave their factory jobs and return back to their home. While many did, women began to reenter the work force in the 1960’s. For those who could find the enough hours in the workday for needlework, quilts continued to be made for gifts, special events, and celebrations.

The twentieth century quilt has been impacted by the development of synthetics. Although some of these new fabrics have been used in quilts, the staple is still cotton. However, when it comes to the inside of the quilt, polyester and polyester blends dominate the batting. Widespread use of commercial patterns and kits have become common place. Seminars, conventions, and workshops are widely held and attract participants from all over the world.

The prevailing colors in the 1950’s were pale pink or blue with gray or black and the log cabin pattern enjoyed a revival. Colors progressed to orange, teal, brown, lime green, avocado or dark green in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The Indiana Bicentennial saw a surge of quilt making as women wanted to make gifts that reflected their heritage. Star patterns again were popular as a way to symbolize this celebration. Neon colors electrified the 1980’s.

Indiana is home to a large Amish population and although they are scattered throughout the state, the largest concentration is in northeastern Indiana. The Amish have produced some of the most extraordinary quilts of this century. Amish quilters use an easily identifiable geometric pattern often with black or another dark color as the dominant fabric, and added bright plain colors. The result is a contemporary feel and a graphic visual effect. There is a large market for Amish quilts today and this market has dictated size, pattern, and fabric selection. The Indiana State Museum houses the largest collection of quilts from the Indiana Amish in the United States.

The art quilt has become a universal medium since gallery showings of quilts began in the 1970’s. The bed quilt has been elevated to an art form. Wall quilts have developed almost exclusively the last 20 years. Quilting is now seen as an art form not just a craft. The historical importance of quilting has been enhanced by the widespread acceptance of research projects involving quilts and quilt making in the United States. Television programs and videos on quilting are a world away from quilting by candle light or oil lamps.

In the early 2000’s new tools such as the rotary cutter and cutting mat have revolutionized the quilt making process. With introduction of the internet and YouTube videos, quilters can learn the art of quilting from their laptops at home. The availability of fabric has reached a new level of consumption with online shopping. Precuts fabric come in 5″ charm packs, 10″ square layer cakes, fat quarter bundles, and 2.5″ strips. This has led to a new market for patterns designed especially for these fabric cuts. It is interesting to speculate in what ways quilt making will continue to evolve, since quilt making to some extent reflects the times, location, and circumstances in which it takes place.