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Piecefully Yours (Concerning the Art of Quilting)

by Julie M. Higginson
 
[The Link believes that homeschooling is only part of a larger world – that of family/home-centered living. We believe that it is important for us to revive and increase knowledge and awareness of many of the family activities that our American forebears engaged in, for our home-living edification. Toward that end, in this issue, we introduce this new column, by quilting expert Julie M. Higginson, who is also a homeschooling mom in the Midwest. Julie’s column relates to quilting in all of its aspects and we invite our readers to write to Mrs. Higginson, c/o The Link (see below) with any questions, tips, or input regarding this great American tradition. Please share your quilting knowledge and stories with our other readers.]

CIVIL WAR QUILTS

"April 15, 1861. The storm has broken upon us. The Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, just off the coast of South Carolina, and forced her on April 14 to haul down the flag and surrender. President Lincoln has issued a call for 75,000 men and many are volunteering to go all around us. How strange and awful it seems." 1

When the war began in April, 1861, the armies were hardly prepared. Regiments often required that soldiers supply their own guns, uniforms and bedding. Many men caught the train to battle with a treasured patchwork quilt or a hand-woven blanket in their packs. Women sent their handmade bedding with the men they loved, but soon realized that the rebellion might just last longer than the three months for which their men had enlisted. The women quickly mobilized to form Soldiers’ Aid Societies or, for those in rural areas, local sewing circles.

So eager to do something for the cause, they had little to offer but their sons’ and husbands’ lives, their daughters’ dowries, and their own domestic skills. Needlework was chief among their skills and became the war work that most occupied women in both the Union and the Confederacy. Women all over the north converted their social sewing circles to war work and set about to organize new ones. Sarah Jane Full Hill recalled: "Every loyal household became a soldier’s aid society...we immediately set to work and made the sewing machine hum night and day. Mother, my aunt and we four older girls worked unceasingly and soon had a large box filled and ready to send to our soldier boys. We made bed ticks which could be filled with hay or straw, could be easily emptied and refilled and took up but little room on a march. We made and tied comforters thick and warm...How the boys rejoiced over the contents of that box, the first of several during the cold winter."2 Some women, like the Full family, supplied their own soldier and his company. Others made clothing and bedding for unknown men. The efforts of many Northern women were coordinated by the United States Sanitary Commission.

In a study of quilts for Union soldiers, it’s estimated that 125,000 quilts and comforts were distributed by the Sanitary Commission during the war. Most surely, quilts were among their top requests. An 1861 request for donations listed, "Quilts, of cheap material, about seven feet long by fifty inches wide." Another request was, "Comfortables 8 feet long, 4 feet wide, of cheap, dark prints, wadded with cotton." Surviving soldier’s quilts are extremely rare, but from them and the recorded descriptions we can guess that most were narrow, useful for a cot, a bedroll, or a hospital bed. They were probably simple patchwork designs, pieced of the calicoes that were relatively inexpensive at the time. Checks and brown prints, cheap and dark enough to hide dirt, would have been popular. A variety of dress scraps, as well as shirting prints, would also be included. The quilts were most likely tied or quilted rather minimally, in order to get as many done in as short a time period as possible. Northern women did lots of other needlework for the soldiers, especially knitting socks and sewing clothing, but piecing quilts and comforters seems to have been a primary activity on the home front.3 Why have so few of these quilts survived? Because they were put together quickly, they were not masterpieces and we can imagine that very few of the quilts ever made it home.

Many Southern white women were at a disadvantage in the first several months of the war because they had no practical sewing experience. Women of the planter class had relied on their servants to do menial work. Plain sewing, the construction of clothing and household linens, was the type of work delegated to slaves in a well-organized Southern household. In general, Southern women did not value plain sewing as the Northern women did, and their efforts to aid their soldiers were hampered at first by their lack of skills. The lack of sewing skills is a consistent theme during and after the war when the slaves had gone and their "missus" could not afford to hire the skilled seamstresses to come back to work for wages.4 Also, many of the Southern gentlemen felt that such work was unladylike for their women. A Mr. Frank Hampton was very specific in his concerns, "Are you in for the frenzied patriotic style?...I mean do you knit socks and join associations with lots of vulgar people? The ladies of Charleston have voted that sort of thing down. They leave it to the lower orders." A lady acquaintance put him in his place one night while at a dinner party, "You are under a delusion in some way sir--but if it is vulgar to love one’s country and to be willing to do all one can for it, I am a vulgar patriot."5

The most significant difference between the two sewing cultures was the lack of sewing materials in the Confederacy. The reason so few Southern quilts pieced during the war have survived, is that far fewer were made. Women were short of fiber to weave fabric, and even thread to sew. Cotton was the major Southern crop, but the well-established system dictated that the raw fiber went north to New England mills or across the ocean to European countries for processing into cloth and sewing thread. Unable to obtain manufactured cotton yardgoods, some Southerners relied on homewoven fabrics, usually a fabric of locally-grown wool combined with cotton or linen, hence the term "linsey-woolsey". Once the clothing only of slaves and rural whites, homewoven grays, plaids, and checks eventually became the fabric of the planter class as well as the uniforms of Southern soldiers. Eventually, women in the Confederacy also formed Soldier’s Aid Societies, but without the formal organization of a central Sanitary or Christian Commission.

I cannot write about quilts from the Civil War era without mentioning the long-debated issue of Log Cabin quilts and whether or not they were used as signals or markers for the Underground Railroad. I believe the majority of people with an interest in the Civil War do indeed feel that these quilts were hung on laundry lines to indicate safe havens for African-Americans running north. These particular Log Cabin quilts are said to have been pieced using black center squares, a contrast to the more common blocks with red centers. There are other tales that tell of quilts used as symbolic maps for the northern journey and block patterns, such as Jacob’s Ladder, encoded with information about way stations. There were probably many signals for personal and place recognition, and it is certainly possible that quilts did mark safe houses.

One of the many unpleasant realities of wartime was the relentless devastation by soldiers who were hungry, drunk and furiously revengeful. Word of Yankee advances terrified women, who feared for their virtue and their lives, but also their silver. Although white women’s panic about their physical safety was generally unnecessary, worries about material possessions were wise for both black and white families in the path of the soldiers. The armies took anything that could be eaten, drunk, ridden, worn, or slept under. Soldiers stripped beds, from the big houses to the small slave cabins. Women often directed their servants to bury their quilts with their silver. The sentimental value of the quilts was probably as important as their functional value as padding for the silver, to prevent it from getting scratched and dented. Mary Jones Mallard wrote to her mother about a friend’s experiences: "The Yankees had ripped up their beds, scattered the feathers and carried off the ticking, quilts, and coverings of every description and had burned her own and her children’s clothing. And the Union men had killed their cattle. All their provisions had been taken away from them, so they were compelled to find another country. Whenever the Yankee officers were remonstrated with for burning and destroying property which was valuable only to the owners, their universal reply was: ‘I am sorry for you, but must obey orders.’"6 Soldiers gave many reasons for their behavior, from following orders to mean revenge, but the true motive was often greed compounded by a desire for a souvenir. Quilts became one of the prized relics. Few families pass down the more unpleasant tale of great-grandfather stealing civilian bedding, yet quilts and comforters acquired through pillage and plunder must survive in Northern and Southern homes. There must have been thousands of them because so many diaries and journals recorded the losses of precious family quilts.

Today there are far more Union quilts in museums than Secession quilts, perhaps because it is most often the victors whose children pass on the stories and heirlooms. After the war Southern men could be arrested for wearing parts of their gray uniform. How many Southern women do you suppose decided it would be wise to destroy their Secession quilts during the reconstruction in the decades after the war?

As with so many other questions about quilts connected to the Civil War, we have to interpret the quilts using evidence in the fabrics, the patterns, and the stories that are handed down with them. As one of the few objects left from that era, they keep us connected to the women of the past, the women who lived through the War.

Tidbits Regarding Vintage Civil War Fabrics

  1. Most of the greens faded drastically because it was difficult to obtain colorfastness from natural plants and minerals. Eventually, the greens took on a distinct yellowish cast.
     
  2. Purple was also a difficult color to obtain with natural dyes on cotton. It is believed that most of the purples were dyed with logwood; they were not intense colors, but rather a flat lavender and faded over time to a dull brownish color.
     
  3. Madder is a vegetable dye and produces a wide range of warm shades that range from a rusty red through burnt orange, to a purplish chocolate brown color and even a brown so dark it looks almost black.
     
  4. Homespun and the hardships that dictated its manufacture became part of the Southern memory of the War. The cloth was so durable that for the fortunate the plaids, checks and jeans cloth outlasted the need for making extra clothing. Homespun was also cut into patchwork for post-War quilts and comforters. These rough and simple quilts were made for several reasons. They served as bed coverings in post-War poverty; they also satisfied the practical nature of quilt makers who couldn’t bear to throw such durable cloth away; and many homespun quilts were made to preserve the memories of homespun days. Over the generations though, the memories have been forgotten, and the rough homespun comforters were too often dismissed as good for only furniture padding or animal bedding. Today homespun is available in a tremendous variety of colors and plaids.

ENDNOTES

  1. Jacqueline Marx Atkins, Shared Threads: Quilting Together--Past and Present (New York: Viking Studio Books, 1994); Caroline Cowles Richards, Village Life in America, 1852-1872 (London: T.F. Unwin, 1912), reprint (Williamstown, Massachusetts: Corner House Publishers, 1972)
  2. Diary entry by Emily Hawley Gillespie. Judy Nolte Lensink (ed), A Secret to be Buried: The Diary and Life of Emily Hawley Gillespie (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989), 66. Memoirs of Sarah Jane Full Hill. Mark M. Krug (ed), Mrs. Hill’s Journal: Civil War Reminiscences (Chicago: R.R. Donnelley and Sons, 1980) 48-49.
  3. Virginia Gunn, Quilts for Union Soldiers in the Civil War, Laurel Horton (ed), Quiltmaking in America: Beyond the Myths (Nashvile: Rutledge Hill Press, 1994) 114.
  4. Diary entry for Nov. 26, 1862. Mary D. Robertson (ed), Lucy Breckenridge of Grove Hill: The Diary of a Virginia Girl (Kent. Kents, 1979) 75.
  5. Quote from Southworth. Diary entries by Mary Chesnut, August 17, 1861, and May 23, 1862, Woodward 149, 344-345.
  6. Letter from Mary Jones Mallard to her mother, March 24, 1864. Myers, 1151.

If you would care to contribute your knowledge or questions regarding quilting, please write to Julie Higginson c/o The Link, #911, 587 N. Ventu Park, Ste. E, Newbury Park, CA 91320, or you can e-mail them to “Attn: Quilting” at the.link@verizon.net and we will be pleased to forward them to her.

Copyright © 2006 Modern Media