Fashion trends for clothing and home décor come and go today just as they did in the 19th Century. Hexagon based patterns were popular in the 1830s, the 1920s, and again in the 2010s. In quilting, sewing, knitting and crochet these patterns are often called Hexagons, Beekeeper, Honeycomb or Grandmother’s Flower Garden. Patterns were published, copied and shared by women’s magazines and social circles as they gained popularity. Today we find them going viral on sites like Pintrest and Etsy and knitting-centric sites like Ravelry.
This Hexagon quilt at the Arlington Historical Society has no known provenance, so we don’t know its owner, maker, or even where it came from. By studying the fabric, as well as the paper templates seen from the back, we can learn a bit more about the quilt and its maker. The pattern of this type of hexagon quilt comes from a method called English paper piecing. Each hexagon was precisely cut from a paper template, and used to shape a slightly bigger piece of fabric into a perfect, sharp-cornered hexagon. Our maker then used her exemplary stitching skills to make dozens of tiny, tight stitches in dark thread to attach each of the hexagons to its neighbor on all sides.
The silks used in this quilt are from dozens of different brightly colored and patterned fabrics. Fabrics for quilts were carefully chosen and shared, whether purchased new, or re-used from other fabric items like bedding, clothing, or leftover fabric scraps. Some fabrics on the AHS Hexagon quilt have seams or stitch holes inside the hexagons, so the maker likely re-purposed from older clothing or other older fabric items she wanted to re-use. The large expanses of black show that there were many yards of black fabric either purchased or re-purposed to make the dramatic bright and dark contrasting pattern.
The alternating dark and light rings that our Hexagon quilter chose make a visually stunning pattern that still looks modern, bold and bright. These silk quilts were sometimes known as ‘parlor quilts’, made and used more as home décor than for warmth and everyday use as bedding. Our maker must have been well-off enough that she had the leisure hours and financial security to spend the time, effort, and more expensive silk fabrics to make beautiful objects such as this silk hexagon quilt.
Flipping the quilt over, the paper templates are still visible because this quilt was never finished. If the quilt were finished, the large loose basting stitches used to keep the fabric from moving around would have been carefully snipped away. Possibly the maker would have removed the paper templates, or put a backing of fabric on the quilt to cover the stitching. Batting was also sometimes added to make the quilt puffy and soft.
The majority of the papers on the AHS Hexagon quilt appear to be a ledger or account book, perhaps even a diary. These papers have hand-drawn lines, with rows and columns of numbers, and small amounts of readable text with measurements or units like ‘lbs’ or ‘oz’. The handwriting is a bold script in inky black that looks somewhat hurried in places. Other writing is on paper with light blue lines in pencil who mentions ‘John’, other in a light brown ink in lighter cursive script where the date ‘1841’ is clearly written. Augusta, ME is clearly printed on one piece, while multiple scraps of white paper with bright purple ink printed text such as ‘Duet for piano’, and ‘Lord is Risen’, apparently from an event, possibly a special church service or concert.
The paper available to the AHS Hexagon quilt maker shows that they, or someone close to them was highly literate, kept diligent records, and had connections to a Christian church. Above all, the usage of multiple types of paper shows that these materials were available to her, and she had a thrifty nature, saving and re-using these materials to make fashionable decorations, even out of an expensive fabric like silk.
Our quilt maker probably collected the paper and silks over time, and from the handwriting and printing of the papers on the back, we can guess that this quilt was made sometime around 1850 at the earliest, and maybe 1870 at the latest. Based on all that we can see in the quilt, we can say that the maker had an artist’s eye for pattern and detail, was resourceful in reusing fabric and paper around the house, but was also financially secure enough to have silk fabric available, and the time to devote herself to making this beautiful object. So while this object is just an unfinished mystery quilt, we can still study it for details and extrapolate what it means about the maker, her life, and the society in which she lived.
“Hexagon, Honeycomb and Grandmother’s Flower Garden.” Grandmothers Flower Garden Quilt, Honeycomb & Hexagon Quilts. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 June 2015.
“Art:Quilts and Quilters:Techniques:English Paper Piecing.” Art:Quilts and Quilters:Techniques:English Paper Piecing. Museum Link Illinois, n.d. Web. 09 June 2015.
Leslie, Eliza. The American Girl’s Book Or, Occupations for Play Hours. New York: R. Worthington, 1880. 313. Print.