In 1835, CS Carpenter finished a beautiful white quilt by stuffing and sewing a cord between layers of soft, fine white cotton to spell out her name and the date. The quilt was passed down or sold through the years, and ended up in the hands of Arlingtonian Mrs. Francis Humphrey, who received the quilt from the owner of the two-family house she lived in by the Mystic Lakes. This is all we know. Signed in 1835 by CS Carpenter, owned by a family near the Mystic Lakes in 1900’s, and donated to the Arlington Historical Society in 1975 by Mrs Humphrey.
While we don’t know anything about the former owners or the maker of this 180 year old quilt, we can definitely look to the style and traditions of quilting to learn more. In general, quilts made of white fabric and white thread are simply known as ‘whitework’ quilts. Whitework quilts with stuffed padding and tiny tights stitches such as the Carpenter Quilt also have origins in European textile traditions, like the Italian trapunto, or French broderie de Marseille, which are both methods of stuffed quilting. In fact, one of the oldest known quilts, the ‘Tristan and Isolde’ quilt, made between 1360 and 1400, is made in much the same way as the Carpenter Quilt . CS Carpenter would have been a skilled quilter, planning and executing this large, elaborate design in thousands of tiny stitches. Each raised area is stuffed with soft cotton twine through the backing, sealed in with tiny stitches, with even more stitches to create the shapes and motifs of the quilt.
White quilts, whole cloth quilts, and stuffed quilts were all quite popular in the first half of the 19th century. Making quilts was also a past time that many young women engaged in just prior to marriage, so that she could take a set of household bedding and linens into her new marriage. We can easily imagine a young woman, likely white, likely from a comfortable family, on the east coast of the US, spending her late teens or early twenties stitching away at her fashionable design, herself trying to imagine what her life would be like when she married. What became of CS Carpenter is unknown, but we can forever appreciate her fine eye for design, and her skilled hands. Signed quilts are rare, so it is easy to image CS Carpenter was a bold woman, proud of her fine work, and rightly insistent that her signature stay with her creation through the years.
Brackman, Barbara. Clues in the Calico: A Guide to Identifying and Dating Antique Quilts. McLean, VA: EPM Publications, 1989. Print.