October 18, 2011


It all began quite innocently.  My husband and I were strolling along the streets of Petaluma, California, in 2001 viewing the city's annual outdoor quilt show.  Petaluma is blessed with a number of antique shops and, during our stroll, I dashed in and out of several of these shops looking for antique quilts and fabrics.  Had I not entered Chelsea Antiques at the end of the day, this blog would not exist--nor would my friendship with Mary Holton Robare, the two books I've since written, the pleasure of hours immersed in Quaker records, and the memories of trips to Ohio and Iowa tracking down details of the lives of people who lived over 150 years ago.
Petaluma Quilt Show, 2001.
I found and bought an old, worn quilt at Chelsea Antiques that day.  That quilt, made in Ohio in 1853 for Philena Cooper Hambleton, literally changed my life.  What began as a mild interest in the 39 people whose names were written on the quilt gradually became an all-engrossing quest to know them.

I'd researched a couple of signature quilts before Philena's quilt came into my life but none of them had been Quaker quilts.  When I discovered that the majority of people named on Philena's quilt were Quakers, reams of research material materialized to reveal their daily lives, their beliefs, the issues of the day, and the ways in which at least a small group of people coped with 19th century American life during times of turbulence and expansion.

In considering what makes Quaker quilts special enough to warrant a blog, Mary and I had to acknowledge that, in general, 18th and 19th century Quaker quilts are much like the quilts made by non-Quakers.  Quaker quilt makers tended to follow the trends prevalent in their larger communities, making whole-cloth quilts followed by the album sampler quilts and single-pattern friendship quilts so popular in the 19th century.  When signature quilts became popular in the middle of that century, Quakers made quilts in this style too.

Quilt historians have noted some characteristics of Quaker signature quilts that seem to recur but are not always present.  These include the grouping of names in family units on the face of the quilt, the use of the Quaker method of date notation (e.g., 5th day 7th mo. 1823), and placing the names of husband and wife together on a single block.  However, these characteristics do not present themselves on every Quaker signature quilt and are also known to occur on quilts made by non-Quakers.

So, what makes Quaker signature quilts special?  Mary puts it this way:  "When a name on a quilt is identified as Quaker, it opens the window to some special opportunities for exploring history.  This is largely because, historically, members of the Religious Society of Friends kept wonderful, detailed records.  These records augment what can be found in public documents.  By studying the history of Quaker quilters and block-inscribers, we can glimpse some of the mid-19th century forces that shaped America.  Because they had access to the finest materials and newest ideas of their times, we can also appreciate many of their quilts as show-pieces of their day."

Mary and I are hosting this blog to share information and resources needed to research quilts made and inscribed by members of the Religious Society of Friends.  (Much of the forthcoming information, however, will apply equally well to researching any signature quilt, Quaker-made or not.)  We will concentrate on 19th century Quaker signature quilts, the sources and locations of Quaker records, and information about the history and practices of the Religious Society of Friends to illumine 19th century Quaker lives and provide context for appreciating their quilts.  We invite you to join us!

Lynda Salter Chenoweth

(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare 2011