The transition to modernity is a fact and talking about this theme is not easy. From some of my research I have managed to understand that, a little bit as happens with us, the Americans have moved on to modernity only by reappropriating the old, the old style, to make the quilting a business for the worldwide market.
They were no longer the European emigrants without art or part, they had learned trades, they went to the College and their life was changing from one day to the next.
Even before the 1920s, magazines dedicated specifically to women and fashion were spread everywhere, with a strong focus on “female” work. They were so many in black and white, colored, glossy, in the end there was talk of female work even on those who did not want to talk about it.
Everyone agreed that “what has been considered old becomes new today”.
No matter how life was modernized and faster for American women, a sort of ‘revival’ of the old style of the quilt after the conquest, rather reconquers them with different ways and suggestions.
Old-time styles find new, up-to-date names, different fabrics are used, often clear and bright colors. The textile industry linked to quilt captures the imagination of a new generation impatient and curious to delve into the history of traditional patchwork, because it was the History and the beauty of this Art that struck them.
“… the old fashion will suggest the new one, because there is nothing so light and modern in our time as the old, dear bedroom of our grandmothers”. So a journalist found himself declaring on the “Ladies Home Journal”.
The reality is that the brides of those years rarely kept under the bed the patches, the remains of upholstery, the cut strips of their dresses as little girls, as their grandmothers had done, but they attended a school where they learned to select colors, and study all the designs and fabrics to match. The textile factories and industries, which made tools to lighten the artisan work, collaborate with the quilter. They reproduce fabrics like the original ones of a century before, those that still today are called “old America” or “civil war”, when women were forced to wear crinoline.
Many books and magazines offer inspiration and instructions for quilting.
A peaceful revolution backwards for this art that has decided to renew and go faster, with an eye not to lose sight of everything that had accumulated over time, rediscovering beauty in simplicity.
What had caused such a big favor among those women attracted by a men’s haircut or by the game of bridge, what was it that attracted girls waiting to pursue a brilliant career after college?
Was marketing born?
he twentieth century spent, women changed clothes, electricity and gas were available everywhere. Fabrics, clothes, everything could be bought in large stores through the postal service. There was always a great bond between American women and the tradition of sewing, often only manual, that they began to practice since girls, and that, we can say, still lasts today.
All that could be used for quilting, crochet, cross stitching, embroidery was provided on an industrial level. For the “crazy quilt” you could buy the fabrics already ready for embroidery but the popularity of that style was now in decline, we went towards greater simplicity.
The appliqué and pieced maintain a strong link with the old style and the women were helped in the realization by the models provided by the newspapers and magazines dedicated to them.
Two women place themselves strongly in this period. Two passionate quilters, scholars of the past and eager to innovate.
The first of these was Nancy Cabot, who wrote for the Chicago Tribune in 1930.
Every day, thanks to her, illustrations and explanations of individual blocks appeared. In the Sunday newspaper issue all the blocks of the week were published. The readers were informed of the name, of the history of that particular block, of the used fabrics and could copy the models to make them. You can have everything “for 5 cents in stamps or in coins”.
Nancy Cabot was the pseudonym of Loretta Leitner Rising. She was born in 1906. Her career at the “Chicago Tribune” began in 1920. She was in charge of the page dedicated to handwriting and devoted herself to spread not only quilting but also embroidery, knitting, and crochet. He died, unfortunately young, he was not yet 52 years old.
The newspapers often provided useful tips along with the kits. There was no rotary cutter so useful today, along with other tools that lighten up the work it took days and days to cut the 2½ “pieces, as for the quilt” Journey around the world “, which contains more than two thousand pieces all perfectly equal.
Some good advice was also given for the laborious hand quilting: “if you work for many hours your fingers will become really very painful. The remedy for this is to dip your fingers in warm water and alum that will protect your skin. “
The “Four Swallows” Quilt kit, in the mid-1920s, was published in “Patchwork Quilt”: along with a collection of 37 ‘old-time’ blocks. The author who gave him the name wrote: “It takes only a little ‘imagination to see four swallows in flight together.” The design is very effective with the swallows in blue and red on white, the model price was 15 cents.
The “Ladies Art Company”, Quilter’s association, went ahead and compiled a selection of more than a hundred models put into a catalog that could be received by mail, also included a color-palette and basic instructions for quilter.
The catalog became a great popular resource, handy for all quilting enthusiasts. It was sent by post. They were the producers of fabrics, of work tools that provided to send the “kits” and the manufactured articles, they still do now and all over the world. The Post Office in America is sacred and arrived everywhere.
At this point, I would like to present a woman, a quilter, who enters the scene at the beginning of the century and she was also an innovator, in step with the times.
Her name is Marie Daugherty Webster, and she was from Marion in Indiana. Marie is rightly credited as the one who permanently changed the look and style of quilts in America. With his original designs, made with light colors and wavy lines, he conquered and dominated the market between the 20s and 30s. Marie established a new aesthetic that American quilters followed. In his city of origin, a museum was created in the same house where he had lived for over ninety years.
Let’s take a look at what his quilts differed from the previous ones
His quilts presented a central medallion, his most famous and imitated: “The poppies” (93 “x 81”), all in cotton and linen. Made in Indiana in 1912.
The elements of his design, the curves full of elegance and the pastel colors were taken up and copied also by other designers.
It was her friends who urged her to publish her “floral appliqué” on the most important women’s magazine. The editor of the “Ladie’s Home Journal” remained impressed and invited Webster to present her quilts for publication. Four of his quilts filled the pages of the January 1911 issue of the magazine, the caption reporting the prohibition of copying the models but Mrs. Webster was available to answer all questions concerning them and mail the printed drawings.
Three years later Mary published the first text, rich and comprehensive on the subject: “Quilters, their History and how to make them”.
A historic stop for the quilter. The book brought back many photos and drawings. It started from antiquity to arrive until today. Great attention to the Orient, to Egypt, to the stories of Greek mythology (Arachne and Penelope), to the invention of the frame in China 2500 years before Christ.
The book was an extraordinary success and the readers were clamoring for the possibility of receiving the models of the drawings.
Transferring the patterns onto the fabric and applying them was something already known but Webster added something, got used to bringing the copy of each section of the design on paper and then resting on the base fabric mark it with a pen all around the fabric.
The models came to cost 50 cents. The kit was born.
The whole family helped him to compose the models and his sister wrote and explained all the instructions for the appliqué.
Mrs. Webester, now had collaborators, offered a varied series of quilts. Every single drawing was sold in different formats with written instructions next to it. The partially complete top, or a box that contained the appliqué models directly printed on the colored fabrics and the fabric of the background with printed lines and positions of the blocks and the path of the quilting.
At the end of the 30s these kits cost from 6 to 8 dollars and the instructions 50/75 cents. These were times of economic crisis and even these prices for many women were above the economic possibilities. The only way for those women to get the designs and patterns of a quilt was to exchange the models and copy each other. Is not that what many of us still do today?
His book was published three times, and the interest in the subject that she had managed to deepen so well grew. Mrs. Webster was invited everywhere to give lectures to talk about it.
His most famous quilt was now offered as a kit, partially finished or finished, prices were around 10, 40 and 90 dollars.
Webster confessed that the secret to obtaining a beautiful and well-made quilt lies a lot in both the use of a good quality fabric and designs for the foundation. (I add: passion and patience).
His book is still reprinted today.
Every interested woman could have her own quilt. There was a Revival of the colonial myth (this would be a separate chapter) of the old tradition: the slogan was: “Keep it as a treasure if you have had a quilt inherited from your grandmothers, if you do not have it, do your, tomorrow you can make it your legacy”.
This was a very sensitive encouragement to tradition.
The situation at that time became an incentive for women to devote themselves to quilting. The Great Depression followed by the rationing of petrol, fabrics; when everything was missing and the efforts for World War II forced the Americans to think about a different use of resources.
Here the pioneers’ epoch back to mind, one thinks of the forced sacrifices that their grandmothers had had to face in the previous century, so quiltersi inspired a lot of old-fashion quilts. They use scraps, they work together with their friends and make hand bedspreads instead of buying them. The modern-quilt bee are born to talk and exchange news and models taken from newspapers and magazines. The desire of model quilters is insatiable for both new and old or different, innovative ones that fill the market.
At that time a plethora of new writers, journalists inspired their quilt writings. It is incredible how many novels were written and published with a quilt or the story of a quilter in the center. This still happens today, there are writers who even publish novels in series around this theme. At the beginning of the century they were sometimes in competition with each other and this was good for the market. Every week the magazines presented a complete quilt made in blocks, ready to be realized, each one could personalize it and give it a name.
Even today, one question remains: What’s in a quilt that keeps attracting so many people? Marie Webster could have said it very well in her 1915 book:
“In reality there are more apathy and leisure in the crowded and full of moving cities than in the quiet countryside. The city women are besieged by tempting distractions and are returning more and more towards the Patchwork as towards a fascinating calm-nerves. They do not find here only a kind of union between themselves and the quilt, but also a great benefit derived from having found a new interest in life, something good, and worth building for themselves. “
“In reality there are more apathy and leisure in the crowded and full of moving cities than in the quiet countryside. The city women are besieged by tempting distractions and are returning more and more towards the Patchwork as towards a fascinating calm-nerves. They do not find here only a kind of union between themselves and the quilt, but also a great benefit derived from having found a new interest in life, something good and worth, to build for themselves. “
The article “Taking back the past” was written by some writings contained in “AMERICAN QUILTS IN THE MODERN AGE, 1870-1940” by the International Quilt Study Center Collections. The author of the research carries the name of Virginia Gunn, who over time has contributed numerous articles to the study of the history of Quilt and of women’s work. He has taught subjects related to the world of textiles and furniture at the University of Akron in Ohio. The article has reduced the material presented, Gunn talks about other interesting American quilter, maybe we will make it the subject of a future article.
For the photos I have used both those published in the aforementioned book and a personal research on-line.
For those wishing to deepen, at the Scuola Romana Quilting, you will find a copy of Marie Webster’s book “Quilts their history and how to make them”.