July 14, 2012

More About Block Placements in 19th Century Signature Quilts

Our last posting concerned the placement of inscribed blocks on a quilt's surface based on the closeness of relationships to the quilt maker or quilt recipient.  When studied closely, other patterns can reveal themselves based not only on inscribed names but also on the fabric used in creating the blocks.

A lot has been learned by studying the Pidgeon Family Quilt, including seemingly deliberate patterns that emerged after close consideration of its block placements.  The quilt was made ca. 1850 by Sarah (Chandlee) Pidgeon of Sandy Spring, Maryland, shortly after her marriage to Samuel Pidgeon of Brucetown, Virginia.  She arranged her blocks in a pattern that alternated blocks of cotton applique with blocks of chintz-work. 

Pidgeon Family Quilt.  Collection of The Colonial Williamsburg
Foundation.  Photograph by Barbara Tricarico.

After transcribing and identifying the people whose names were inscribed on its blocks, something less obvious was discovered.  Of those blocks with legible inscriptions, Maryland residents signed all that contain the chintz; Virginians signed all of the inscribed, cotton applique squares.

Furthermore, some of the actual quilting appears to emphasize relationships, such as identical leaves that were stitched around the names of the sisters-in-law on these blocks.  (The stitching is in white so the leaves are difficult to make out in the photographs below.)  As you can see, Deborah and Beulah Iddings Lea also shared the same chintz.

Close-ups of the Pidgeon Family Quilt showing the initials and last name of Deborah
Iddings Lea and the initials of Beulah Iddings Lea.  Photographs by Mary Holton Robare.

The center block is an exception to the Maryland and Virginia block styles as it contains both cotton applique and chintz-work.  This combination is strikingly symbolic.  In essence, it emphasizes a union-in-cloth between the communities of the bride and groom.  Sarah's sister left the inscription, barely visible below the flowers, that says: "Eliza Chandlee, Friendship Offerings".

Pidgeon Family Quilt, detail.  Photograph by Barbara Tricarico.

Sarah and Eliza were extremely close.  This we know from their letters and journals that are now archived at the Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College.  Almost every surviving letter written by Eliza Chandlee refers to quilting and needlework.  It was an inextricable part of her daily life, part entertainment, part necessity, but always worth a written mention.  She wrote: "I have an invite to a quilting tomorrow, if it should storm & I have to stay at home I will have to do as I have done today, hunt up all the fancy work I can find in the way of patching, darning, etc., etc., etc."

For those who sew and quilt as a way of life, it is not hard to imagine the care and planning women put into the everyday tasks of mending as well as into their placement of blocks in historical Quaker quilts.


Robare, Mary Holton.  "Cheerful and Loving Persistence: Two Historical Quaker Quilts."  In Uncoverings 2007, edited by Joanna E. Evans.  Volume 28 of the Research Papers of the American Quilt Study Group.

(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare

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