March 23, 2012

A Quaker Quilt at the American Museum in Britain

The American Museum in Britain opened in 1961 to showcase America's decorative arts and to provide the British public with a more informed understanding of American history and the American people.  Based at Claverton Manor in Bath, the museum has among its holdings over two hundred quilts of superb quality and workmanship.  Most of these quilts are American in origin and some of them were made by Quakers.

One of the museum's Quaker-made quilts is a Tumbling Blocks Star quilt made by Sarah Taylor Middleton (1825 - ?) and exhibited in 1852 at the New Jersey State Fair in Trenton.  Not only was Sarah one of the earliest female physicians in Pennsylvania, practicing under the name Rogers after marrying Clayton Brown Rogers (1810 - 1885) on July 1, 1861, she was also an accomplished seamstress.  Her skill and ingenuity can be seen in her unusual choice of using the Tumbling Blocks pattern to fashion a silk, twelve-pointed star and then applying this star by applique to a background of blue-striped silk.

Sarah Taylor Middleton's Tumbling Blocks Star Quilt.  The quilt measures
103" X 103".  Photograph courtesy of the American Museum in Britain.

Close-up of the silk Tumbling Blocks.  Each block is constructed from three
 pieces of silk that were "tacked onto diamond-shaped papers and then
 hand-sewn together." The use of light, medium, and dark shades of silk provide
 the blocks with their three-dimensional appearance. Photograph courtesy of
 the American Museum in Britain.

Close-up of the background silk used to mount the Tumbling Blocks Star and
detail of some of the quilting that appears on the quilt's surface.  Photograph
courtesy of the American Museum in Britain.

While the silk blocks and the quilting were sewn by hand, the blue-striped silk used to receive the Tumbling Blocks Star was assembled by sewing machine from three lengths of fabric. Treadle sewing machines were available in 1852 but they were considered novelties at the time and, as such, were expensive to purchase.  As a physician, Sarah in all likelihood had sufficient income and, as an unmarried woman, the freedom to "splurge" on an innovative piece of equipment for her personal use.

Daguerreotype of an unknown woman seated at a sewing
machine ca. 1853.  Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In contrast to the sober fabrics used on the front of the quilt, Sarah chose to back the quilt with a bright, glazed-blue cotton.

The backing used for the Tumbling Blocks Star Quilt.  Photograph courtesy of
the American Museum in Britain.

This beautifully made and unusual entry won Sarah Taylor Middleton a silver ladle presented by the New Jersey State Fair and inscribed "Premium S.T.M. For Silk Quilt 10 Mo. 1852".

For more about the American Museum in Britain, its history, and its collections, visit their web site at 


Beresford, Laura and Katherine Hebert.  Classic Quilts from The American Museum in Britain.  London: Scala Publishers Ltd., 2009.

(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare 2012

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