March 15, 2013

Plain Dress, Vibrant Quilts

Many who have researched nineteenth-century Quaker quilts note the apparent aesthetic inconsistency between the modest clothing of muted colors generally worn by members of the Religious Society of Friends and the colorful vibrancy of some of their quilts.  Authors who have discussed this issue in the context of quilt study include Patricia J. Keller, Patricia T. Herr, and Jessica F. Nicoll.

The rules of conduct expected of Quakers in both their public and private lives were periodically issued by their Yearly Meetings in the form of regional "general advices" and published as "Disciplines".  (Refer to our posting of December 20, 2011 for a description of the organization and activities of Quaker Meetings at all levels.)  The behavior specified by the Disciplines differed somewhat over time and on regional bases, but these generally encouraged Friends to observe moderation in dress and manner, and to avoid superfluity in the way they conducted their lives.  Through the Disciplines, all Quakers were called upon to face the problem of living "in the world, but not of it."

Nineteenth-century Quakers were generally distinquished by the plainness of their dress.  To dress plainly meant dressing in clothing of simple design made with fabrics of muted colors such as dove, grey, cream, and moss green.  Plain dressing also included the general avoidance of decorative elements, such as buttons, long scarves, and "gaudy stomachers", that were considered superfluous. The changing "stlyles" of clothing were also to be avoided so as not to call attention to one's self as someone "of the world".  In America strict adherence to plain dress varied, creating a distinction within the religion between "gay friends" and plain friends".  The gay friends still dressed simply but did not eschew subtle forms of adornment on their clothing and wore more colorful, but still modest, fabrics.

English Quaker Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) wearing the plain dress adopted
by most American Quakers in the early 19th century.  This style of dress generally
included a modest bonnet, floor-length dress or skirt in subdued tones (often made of
silk), cream-colored bodice inserts for skirts, and a shawl.  This picture of Elizabeth Fry
is after a portrait by George Richmond, 1824.  Illustration from The Quaker, A Study in
Costume by Amelia Mott Gummere.
 
"Typical Quaker dress of 1840 and after, with slight variations in the fullness of skirt
  and sleeves.  This costume was worn in Pennsylvania in 1840." Illustration and quote from
Elizabeth McClellan, Historic Dress in America 1800-1870, 1901.
 
 
 
"Old lady in Quaker dress.  The shawl is of a soft fabric called Chenille.  The bonnet
is a grey silk shirred over small reeds.  From a photograph."  Illustration and quote
from Elizabeth McClellan, Historic Dress in America 1800-1870, 1901.
 
 
Women, including Quaker women, have always used in their quilts the left-over remnants from clothes making.  We certainly see such remnants in Quaker quilts of silk, reflecting the muted tones of the fabrics they wore.  (Refer to the Yarnall quilt featured in our posting of April 11, 2012.)  But what about the bright and vibrant cotton fabrics used in many nineteenth-century Quaker quilts?  Were these contrary to rules outlined by Quaker Disciplines?
 
 
 
 
"Album Quilt, #1945-35-1". details.  Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Photographs by
Mary Holton Robare.
 
 
In her Uncoverings article cited below, Mary Holton Robare quotes from a discourse about material culture found in the Baltimore Yearly Meeting's Book of Discipline:  "True simplicity consists not in the use of particular forms, but in fore-going overindulgence, in maintaining humility of spirit, and in keeping the material surroundings of our lives directly serviceable to necessary ends, even though these surroundings may properly be characterized by grace, symmetry and beauty."  Mary goes on to comment that "Beautiful, high quality cottons or chintzes used in quilts fit this directive, and served the tenet of simplicity by lasting longer than fabrics requiring repair or replacement."  (Robare, 197.)
 
We see from surviving examples that colorful quilts seem to have been generally acceptable in Quaker homes in spite of religious dictates related to clothing.  This may have been because clothing presented to the world a reflection of the spiritual state of the wearer and his or her commitment to religious tenets.  The belongings one kept in one's home for private use seem not to have been considered in quite the same way so long as they still reflected simplicity in construction, appearance, materials, and purpose.
 
Given the variety of fabrics that occur in cotton Quaker quilts, one might assume that few of them were derived from clothing fabric.  But certainly many of the fabrics of muted and cream-colored tones could be clothing-fabric remnants.  We also know from Mary Frances (Mollie) Dutton, a Quaker of Waterford, Virginia, that she used many scraps of "red oil calico" (otherwise known as "Turkey red" fabric) in a mid-nineteenth century quilt she made as a girl.  She remarked that "In those days, nearly every baby had a pretty red dress [. . .]"  (Divine, Souders and Souders, 11.)   Further, the Quakers, who were generally well-off and could afford to buy the best fabrics available, purchased fine quality materials to make household items such as bed hangings and curtains.  They also purchased fabric for quilt making as demonstrated by the amount of single-fabric yardage used for backing and other purposes in assembling some of  their quilts.
 
The modesty of Quaker dress was tied to religious beliefs and codes of conduct set forth by the Disciplines.  Some of their quilts, however, while reflecting the concept of simplicity, display a creative impulse to provide functionality and symmetry with the beauty of vibrant color.
 
Sources:
 
Comfort, William Wistar.  Just Among Friends: The Quaker Way of Life.  New York: Macmillan, 1941.
 
Divine, John E., Bronwen C. Souders and John M. Souders.  "To Talk is Treason": Quakers of Waterford, Virginia on Life, Love, Death & War in the Southern Confederacy, From Their Diaries and Correspondence.  Waterford, VA: Waterford Foundation, 1996.
 
Gummere, Amelia Mott.  The Quaker, A Study in Costume.  Philadelphia: Ferris & Leach, Publishers, 1901.
 
Herr, Patricia T.  "All in Modesty and Plainness."  In The Quilt Digest, 22.  San Francisco: The Quilt Digest Press, 1985.
 
Keller, Patricia J.  "Of the Best Sort but Plain": Quaker Quilts from the Delaware Valley, 1760-1890.  Chadds Fort, PA: Brandywine River Museum, 1996.
 
Nicoll, Jessica F.  Quilted for Friends: Delaware Valley Signature Quilts, 1840-1855.  Winterthur, DE: Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, 1986.
 
Lapansky, Emma Jones and Anne A. Verplanck.  Quaker Aesthetics, Reflections on a Quaker Ethic in American Design and Consumption.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.
 
Robare, Mary Holton.  "Cheerful and Loving Persistence." In Uncoverings 2007, 165-206.  Lincoln: American  Quilt Study Group, 2007.
 
(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare, 2013.
 

 


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