October 1, 2013

Deborah Iddings Willson and the Pieced Quilt in Eastern (Blazing) Star Pattern

Pieced quilt in Eastern (Blazing) Star pattern.  Photography by Joanna Church.
Collection of the Montgomery County Historical Society, Rockville, Maryland.
This splendid quilt was donated to the Montgomery County Historical Society (MCHS), Rockville, Maryland, by Mary Moore Miller.  It came out of a house built by a Quaker although there are other possibilities for its provenance.  Experts date the quilt to the 1840s based on the fabric's colors and prints, which include a sashing of blue moire.  The size is also worth noting as it is almost nine feet square.  Miller purchased the quilt in 1986 at the "Fairfield" estate sale.  At that time, Fairfield was the home of Deborah (Iddings) Willson (1896-2000).  Those dates are correct.  She died at the age of 103!
Fairfield circa 1950, donated to the MCHS by Roger Brooke Farquhar, Jr.  Courtesy
of the MCHS, Rockville, Maryland.
Fairfield was built by Deborah's Quaker grandfather, Edward Peirce, in 1856.  It is said that his wife, a Moravian named Sophie Kummer, had the first piano in Sandy Spring, Maryland, which "helped break down Quaker opposition to music . . ." in the community.
Detail of the quilt.  Photograph courtesy of the MCHS.
That the quilt came out of the Fairfield house is evidenced by the 1960s inscriptions on its back.  "Bought at Deborah Iddings Willson sale 9-14-1968."  Where there is no other documentation, quilt scholars look for other clues.
Fueling speculation about the origins of the quilt is the Trenton tape with which it is bound.  One article published on The Quilt Index describes it like this:  "Tape binding woven of tan cotton thread, often with a lengthwise blue or green stripe, was used on New Jersey quilts of the 1840s with some regularity."  (We addressed Trenton tape briefly in a previous post of 27 November, 2012 about the Aimwell School Quilt.)
Detail of the Aimwell School Quilt showing "Trenton tape" binding.  Photograph
courtesy of Lisa Hammond.
Until recently, quilt historians suspected this binding was made exclusively in New Jersey but, like many historical ideas, this is open to revision.  The source of its manufacture is unknown, and some feel it might even have been produced by home weavers.  Without further evidence best knowledge states, "Unless this binding is later reported from other locations, the presence of a tan tape binding on a mid-nineteenth century quilt may suggest that it is of New Jersey or at least Delaware Valley origin."
So one wonders how did Deborah Iddings Willson of Maryland come to own this quilt?  Deborah married John Albert Willson in Montgomery County, Maryland, in 1926.  She worked as a second grade teacher in Baltimore and later helped her parents design and produce woven floor coverings.  Some speculate that the quilt was handed down to her through her female Quaker lines.  That practice was customary but certainly not a rule.  Still, examinations of the quilt combined with Deborah's genealogy suggest possible Quaker connections.  We know that "Mrs. Willson was descended from the Peirce and Moore families [Quakers], both of which came to Montgomery County from Pennsylvania in the late 18th century and probably the quilt (or at least the quilting techniques) came with them." (2007 MCHS exhibit label).
Detail of the pieced Quilt in Eastern (Blazing) Star pattern..  Photograph by
Mary Holton Robare.
Many Montgomery County, Maryland, residents settled there after migrating from Pennsylvania in the early 1800s, and many were members of the Religious Society of Friends. But after researching the life of Deborah Iddings Willson one wonders, is it possible the quilt was handed down from another source, or through her music-loving Moravian grandmother's side of the family?
In her obituary, Deborah -- a direct descendent of Quakers and Moravians -- was described as a lifelong Episcopalian.  We will probably never have a definitive attribution for this quilt, let alone one that is Quaker.  However, thanks to a generous donor and an openly sharing historical society, we are able to enjoy the beauty and mysteries of this wonderful, historical quilt.
We wish to thank Joanna Church, Collections Manager of the Montgomery County Historical Society, Rockville, Maryland.  Please visit their website http://www.montgomeryhistory.org as well as Joanna's blog at http://afinecollection.wordpress.com/.
Canby, Thomas Y., ed.  "Sandy Spring Legacy."  Sandy Spring Museum, Sandy Spring, Maryland, 1999.
See Cochran, Rachel, Rita Erickson and Barbara Schaffer.  "Characteristics of New Jersey Quilts."
Church, Joanna.  "Label".  2007 Exhibit of Quilts at the Montgomery County Historical Society, Rockville, Maryland.
Willson, Deborah Iddings.  Obituary, quoted on the "Find a Grave" website at http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=99235392  Accessed 26 August 2013.
(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare, 2013.


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