In 1926, Mary Gage donated a large wool quilt to the Arlington Historical Society. Mary and her husband Alfred Payson Gage had moved to Arlington from New Hampshire early in their marriage, and lived just down the street from the Jason Russell house for years. The only information about the quilt is Mary’s short history that it was made by her grandmother, Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson in 1781. There are many clues to the time and make of the Gage quilt which support Mary’s oral history of the object, but also many pieces of information which are lost to history.
Quilts, and other cloth and fabric objects such as dresses, linens, and other items were, and still are, often passed down from mother to daughter. Mary Gage was born in 1837 in New Hampshire to her parents James Prescott and Mary E Cunningham, who also went by the name Polly. Mary’s mother Polly was born in 1803 in New Hampshire to her parents, whose names were sadly not recorded on Polly’s marriage certificate. Exactly how Mary E Thompson is related to Mary Gage has not yet been uncovered, but the estimated dates of when Mary’s grandparents would have been alive supports the possibility of this quilt having been made in 1781, and handed down to the next generation’s daughter named Mary.
During the decades surrounding American Revolution, trade with England and the rest of Europe was difficult or impossible, making the production of textiles critical for households and small manufacturers in the new American states. Sheep were valuable livestock and commodity for New England farmers, and everyone in the household would be expected to help with the care of the animals, and the processing of turning wool into thread, cloth, clothing and bedding. In rural New England, women were often at the center of this home-based textile industry. Women would spend a large portion of their work days cleaning, spinning, and sewing to keep the family clothed, clean, and warm.
Weaving and dyeing was often done by a more specialized craftsperson in a small manufacturing business, but many households were self-sufficient, doing all their own weaving and dyeing. In small communities such as those in rural New England, tasks and materials were traded between households and small textile businesses. People bartered and paid for raw wool, fabric, and labor in a brisk textile economy to make many of the functional goods needed for the family.
In whole cloth quilts like the Gage quilt, the fabric of each side is one color, and often woven in long thin strips that have been sewn together to make a large sheet of cloth. The threads are thick and slightly unevenly spun, letting us know that the wool yarn was more likely spun by hand, not by machine. The long thin strips of woven fabric suggests the use of a smaller loom of the type that could have been available to rural New England community in the 18th century. Whether the loom was worked by a skilled family member or neighbor, or a weaver with a small shop in the community, the method and style of the fabric fits with the given date of creation of 1781.
The deep rich colors of the Gage quilt are also great examples of vegetable dyes from roots, bark, leaves and nuts of the local flora and fauna of post-colonial New England. Deep dark browns were often derived from nuts and bark, while golden yellows came from plants such as madder, gallium or tansy.
The Gage quilt is large, packed with thick warm wool, and very heavy – perfect for cold New England winters back when houses were poorly insulated, and families often slept several to a bed. The wool fabric, dye colors, size, and stitching of dense diagonal lines and floral motifs in the Gage quilt can be seen on similar quilts from the late 18th century in many museum and private collections. The thick warm layers of the Gage quilt are sewn together with very fine, even stitches in a geometric and floral pattern, showing that while functionality was required, the women who made these quilts also spent their time and honed their talents to make them beautiful objects as well.
Mary Gage and her family obviously cherished this quilt, keeping it in good condition for 145 years. Since 1926, 89 years so far, the quilt has been cared for by the Arlington Historical Society. With just a few moth holes, the Gage quilt is a beautiful example of a Colonial American whole cloth quilt that we can all continue to cherish.
Brackman, Barbara. Clues in the Calico: A Guide to Identifying and Dating Antique Quilts. McLean, VA: EPM Publications, 1989. Print.
Trestain, Eileen Jahnke. Dating Fabrics: A Color Guide, 1800-1960. Paducah, KY: America Quilter’s Society, 1998. Print.
Crews, Ed. “History.org: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Official History and Citizenship Website.” Weaving, Spinning, and Dyeing : The Colonial Williamsburg Official History & Citizenship Site. Colonial Williamsburg, 2006. Web. 09 June 2015.