If there have been three constants in quilting, it’s these: fabric, patterns, and publications. I realized this as soon as I started quilting. Fabric, patterns, magazines and books are seemingly always in constant supply. And of the three, quilting publications are the most recent addition.
In many ways, today we have it super easy to learn about quilting. Curious about a new technique? There’s YouTube and blogs. Want to get a glimpse of the latest fabrics? Well, there are quilt magazines out there – both the kind published on paper and the e-versions. What do they all have in common? They’re clickable – decide what you want, find it, and with a click of the mouse it’s downloaded to a laptop, iPad, or phone. There’s no waiting. It’s instant quilting gratification. Of course, it wasn’t always like this. The internet had to be developed. Electronic devices had to become affordable for everyone to access.
That is true. But what you may not know is how hard quilters worked to get to the point-click-download part. Do you have any inkling of what went on behind the scenes to move us from the first quilting pattern in magazines to internet programs such as The Quilt Show? Truthfully, until I began researching the blog The Kansas Phenomena, I honestly had no idea. Vaguely, on some level, I was aware of certain books and magazines and when they were published. But there is so much more to it than I imagined. So many people worked incredibly hard to get us here – to the point where there is more quilting information and history available than at any other time. With this blog, I’d like to give you a rough timeline and mention the names behind this effort.
The Holy Trinity of Early Quilting Books
We have quilt books and magazines coming out our ears today. Don’t want to buy them? Chances are good your local library has a fine selection. Don’t want hundreds of books taking up shelf space? You’re in luck. Many of these are available as an e-version and the patterns are in a separate file which can be downloaded as you need them. However, prior to 1915, quilting books were nonexistent. But with the Arts and Crafts Revival pushing the interest in “home arts” it didn’t take long for publishing companies to figure out how they could cash in on this craze — books about quilts and quilting. Before long, we had what most quilt historians call “The Holy Trinity of Early Quilting Books.” These were the best ones, the most well-written, easiest to understand, and the earliest of serious quilting publications.
The first extensive book on the subject was written by Marie Webster. Titled “Quilts: Their Story and How to Make Them,” it was published in 1915. Marie Webster was an avid quilter who managed to make applique a high art as well as an accepted technique. Along the way, she became a businesswoman, producing some of the earliest quilt kits and patterns. Her book traces applique and quilting in the ancient world, medieval Europe, and early America. Twenty-four of Marie Webster’s own quilts are illustrated in color, with 60 additional black and white photos of historic quilts and needlework from the original editions, as well as photos from Marie Webster’s family album.
The book originally took two forms. There was a blue cover book (center) which was a limited edition and a cream-colored one (right) which was the standard trade edition. The one we’re most familiar with is on the left, and it is actually a 1990 reprint of the book by Rosalind Webster Perry – Marie Webster’s granddaughter. Prior to writing the book, Marie had fourteen patterns published in Ladies Home Journal and her wildly successful quilting business (The Practical Patchwork Company) was growing rapidly. It didn’t take long for Doubleday, Page, and Company publishers to knock at her door and request a book. “Quilts: Their Story and How to Make Them,” delves into quilt history, pattern names, and how to make a quilt. It was the very first book to discuss quilt construction.
The reprint edition is still fairly readily available. A quick Amazon search turned up a few hardback and paperback editions. Thrift Books also has several copies. It is 244 pages and if you’re interested in quilts pre-1930, you will want to add this book to your library. If you’d like to read more about Marie Webster, you can go here: https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2021/11/10/the-problems-with-the-quilts-the-sears-national-quilt-show-and-re-inventing-applique/
“Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them” is the second book. Ruth Finley wrote this one and a few paragraphs about Ruth herself are worth going into (which I will shortly). First published in 1929, this record of the most picturesque of all American folk arts is an enduring contribution to the study of women’s history. The first printing had 200 photographs of quilts, quilters, and diagrams. “Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them,” was reprinted for the third time in 1990 and it added more pictures and diagrams as well as eight color plates. Barbara Brackman wrote the forward to the third edition. This book is still widely available (used, of course).
Now, back to Ruth Finley. Born on September 25, 1885, her father was Dr. Leonidas Ebright who served as surgeon general of Ohio, an Ohio state representative, and Akron’s postmaster. Her mother was Julia Bissell. She was a graduate of Oberlin College, the first American college to grant degrees to women. Ruth’s family had colonial roots dating back to 17th Century Connecticut, including two governors. She used this pedigreed background to her advantage in her creative undertakings. In 1902 she enrolled in Oberlin College, but only stayed one semester. She transferred to Buchtel College (later the University of Akron), but only completed two additional semesters. When she left Buchtel, she spent a year touring the western United States, writing stories and poems as she traveled. By 1907, she began her career as a journalist. She worked as various newspapers, first as an investigative reporter (she went undercover as Ann Adams to report on the harsh working conditions of women in factories and households) and then as an editor. She met and married her husband – also a newspaper reporter – Emmet Finley in 1910.
Ruth grew up with a knowledge of quilts through her family connections. During her years as a newspaper writer and editor, she began to collect antique quilts. From 1910 to 1919, as she traveled the country both for business and pleasure, she would look for quilts. When certain quilts hanging on a clothesline caught her attention, she stopped at the farmhouse and asked for a drink of water. With this simple introduction, she would inquire about the quilt(s) she was interested in. She would ask about the name of the quilt and the story behind it. Many times her offer to purchase the quilt was accepted. From this, Ruth began to collect patchwork patterns, making diagrams and identifying them by name. If more than one name was given to the same pattern, she recorded all the variants and included in her book the name she thought most appropriate.
This meticulous research continued for several years, until she began writing Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them. The writing process began in 1915 and ended in 1929 – a fourteen-year effort. When the book was published in 1929, it included information about more than 300 quilt patterns and Ruth’s empathy for the women of the 19th Century was clearly evident throughout the book.
There is no doubt that Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them had a profound influence of designers of Ruth’s time period and those who came after. Quilters such as Pine’ Eisfeller, Rose Kretsinger, and others drew their own patterns based on inspiration from the black and white pictures in the book. However, throughout this entire research and writing process, Ruth Finley never put the first stitch in a quilt of her own. She researched them, preserved the ones she purchased, and wrote about them extensively, but never made one. She did design one, though. In 1934 she designed a quilt in honor of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The quilt design was published in Good Housekeeping. Photographs and descriptions of the quilt portray it as “rectangular wreath of fantasy flowers appliqued in gorgeous bas-relief.” A great variety of brilliant calicoes were used for the flowers on the wreath, which was placed against a background of black sateen. The quilt was lined and corded with lipstick-red fabric.
Ruth Finley’s last known writing was the start of her autobiography. Fourteen typewritten pages, with penciled margin notes, are all that remain of it. After a lingering illness, Ruth died in Glen Cove, Long Island, New York, on September 24, 1955, the day before her seventy-first birthday. She was inducted into the Quilters Hall of Fame in 1979 – the year the first group of quilters were inducted.
The third book of this Holy Quilting Trinity is The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt.
This book is written by Carrie Hall and Rose Kretsinger, with Kretsinger writing the section “The Art of Quilting and Quilting Designs.” Carrie Hall wrote the rest of the book. And unlike Ruth Finley, Carrie Hall sewed prolifically, claiming “I was born with a needle in my hand.” We are forever indebted to Hall for her rich record of America’s early quilt heritage.
Carrie Hall was born in Caledonia, Wisconsin on December 9, 1866, and attributed her mother for her love of books, desire for knowledge, and discriminating taste in fashion. Her mother taught Carrie to sew and by the age of seven, Carrie had pieced a LeMoyne Star Quilt, which won first place in the county fair. By ten, she was out-pacing adult sewers, winning ribbons and a subscription to Godey’s Lady’s Book. By the age of 23, she had moved to Leavenworth, Kansas and launched her career as a dressmaker. Her business prospered, as she catered to the well-to-do, copying the styles from Paris and importing French fabrics to make her dresses with.
It was after World War I that Carrie began making quilts. As the quilt revival grew in the 1920’s, she created 16 quilts, including an original design she named Cross-Patch. She was captivated by all the beautiful quilt patterns on the market, but realized she would never be able to make a quilt from each pattern. As a sort of compromise, she decided to make a sample block of every known quilt pattern at the time. Eventually, this massive undertaking yielded well over 800 blocks, along with dozens of scrapbooks filled with quilt related clippings.
By the late 1920’s, the availability of ready-made clothing caused her dressmaking business to decline. Redirecting her life, Carrie became a quilt lecturer. Dressed in a colonial costume of red moire’ trimmed with frilled net fichu and cuffs, she presented more than 80 quilt lectures, illustrated with her extensive quilt block collection, to women’s groups and at department stores. The presentations were received with such enthusiasm that soon her friends were encouraging Carrie to write a book. So, in 1935, Carrie, along with Rose Kretsinger, wrote The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt in America. The book combined quilt history drawn from personal accounts, women’s magazines, and the scrapbooks in Carrie’s collection. The photographs of Carrie Hall’s quilt blocks made it the first comprehensive index to quilt patterns, their names, and their histories. First published in 1935, the book has been re-printed several times because it’s still popular due to its well-organized illustrations of more than 800 numbered blocks in traditional and early 20th century designs. It does get a bit confusing when Hall mentions things like “the war.” You have to bear in mind the book was written five years before the beginning of World War II, so “the war” means World War I. Many quilt and books critics think The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt continues where Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them leaves off. And it does seem to do this.
After completing her book on quilts, Carrie pursued other sewing-related business ventures, including a second book in 1938 titled From Hoopskirts to Nudity, which reviewed the fashion follies from 1866 to 1936. Carrie’s fortunes rose and fell, but eventually she became financially stable again when she began producing a line playtime and character dolls of historical figures. Fellow quilters (and Quilters Hall of Fame inductees) Florence Peto, Grace Snyder, and Bertha Stenge encouraged and supported her in this effort. In January 1955, Carrie machine-pieced a Delectable Mountains quilt top for a special friend and a Nine Patch for a new baby. These were the last two quilts she made. She died at the age of 88, on July 8, 1955. She was inducted into the Quilters Hall of Fame in 1985. In 1999, the University of Kansas Spencer Museum of Art, along with the American Quilters Society, republished Carrie Hall’s 800 quilt blocks in color. They also included over 200 quilt patterns which could be made from the blocks, as well as assembly diagrams. In many instances, this book is more difficult to find than Romance of the Patchwork Quilt.
It’s important to keep in mind other quilt books were also published during this time. However, these three were (and are) still the best and do a great job in tracing quilt history and construction. All three of the books helped usher in the second Great Quilt Revival. And as women purchased or borrowed them to read, three other publishing concepts were finding their footing in the quilt world: Syndicated Quilting Columns, Quilting Newsletters, and Round Robins.
Just Who Were Laura Wheeler, Nancy Cabot, and Alice Brooks?
During the Thirties, many newspapers would publish a quilt block. This was usually a line drawing of a block, with maybe a few rudimentary details. The Kansas City Star newspaper was especially well-known for their quilt blocks. Women would see the quilt block, read the few details, and then could either try to break down the block and make it themselves, or drop a few coins in an envelope, send it off, and receive the pattern via the US Postal System. Most of the time, the construction directions were necessary, as many of the blocks were not designed by Laura Wheeler, Nancy Cabot, or Alice Brooks. They were actually drawn by graphic artists with no quilting background – which rendered some of them downright impossible to construct. The directions varied according to the complexity of the block. Some of the patterns were good. Others were confusing. However, nearly all of them were attributed to one of the three women. So just who were Laura Wheeler, Nancy Cabot, and Alice Brooks?
Figments of the publishers’ imagination. That’s right. They didn’t exist. The actual face behind the women was a man named George Felleman Goldsmith, Jr. He was the founder of Reader Mail, Inc., a service dealing with dress and needlework feature articles. These were distributed throughout the United States, England, and Canada by King Features. And how the distribution worked was nearly like a shell game. The first group of patterns were published in 1928 and used the byline Laura Wheeler and Alice Brooks. If a woman perusing a newspaper found a pattern she liked and it was attributed to one of these imaginary quilters, the woman could mail cash for the cost of a pattern (usually around 15 cents) to a New York City address and the pattern would be mailed to her. There were several different post office boxes and at least eight different pattern house names listed for The Reader Service (at that time known as The Old Chelsea Station Needle Craft Service). The addresses ran the gamut from Eighth Avenue, West 14th Street, West 17th Street, West 18th Street, and Sixth Avenue. This allowed the company to advertise two or more feature patterns in the same newspaper. Eventually the pseudonym Nancy Cabot had to be added, because there was no way two “women” could come up with all these patterns.
Actually there was a large group of individuals behind these syndicated patterns. At least thirteen individuals (many of them women) served to develop the patterns, write the directions, take care of newspaper syndication, and the distribute the patterns to the folks who mailed in a dime. And while the whole situation does sound like a shell game of Limited Liability Companies, the syndicated patterns linked quilters together across the United States and unified quilt block names. These newspaper patterns solidified quilts such as Grandmother’s Flower Garden, Sunbonnet Sue, and Double Wedding Ring. Prior to the publication of these blocks in the newspapers, they were known by many names. Because the syndicators gave these blocks a name and that name was published across the country, those quilt block names were unified. If someone mentions a Grandmother’s Flower Garden, you automatically know we’re talking about this block:
The same thing happened with other quilt blocks names. While they may have many monikers, syndicated publications promoted their primary name.
Syndication also provided the same pattern to hundreds of quilters in America, Britain, and Canada. As hundreds of patterns were mailed out, hundreds of women found themselves making the same quilt. The regionality of quilts somewhat faded as the universal popularity of some quilts pushed it out of the way. Love it or hate it, these syndicated quilting columns and patterns were very successful and remained a feature in many newspapers until around 1962, when quilting’s popularity dipped a bit as women in large numbers entered the work force. By 1967, they were almost totally absent from newspapers.
When you mention the quilting term “Round Robin” to quilters today, it means a communal quilting event. You make a center block and pass it off to a quilting friend. They add borders to it and pass it off to another quilter. This continues until everyone in your Round Robin Group has a chance to put a border on your quilt square and then returns it to you.
Early Round Robins had plenty to do with quilts but were nothing like today’s Round Robins. From roughly the early sixties through the seventies, Round Robins were letters passed between quilters who shared patterns, thoughts, quilt research, and color palettes. Sometimes if there were questions concerning construction, one of the quilters who had made the block in the past would include an actual quilt block in the correspondence. However, the fact remains that a large chunk of what we know about quilt history is due to the United States Postal Service and these Round Robins.
One of the best-known Round Robin writers was Mary Schafer. If you’ve never heard of her or read anything about her, I strongly recommend you read Mary Schafer: American Quilt Maker by Gwen Marston.* Mary Schafer, an unassuming woman from Michigan, was one of the people responsible for the modern American quilting revival in the seventies. A prolific quilter (quilting from 1952 – 1995) creating hundreds of quilts, she also was a prolific letter writer/Round Robin leader. During the heyday of these Round Robins, her address book read like a Who’s Who in American Quilt Making. By the time the seventies rolled around, and our country was poised for another Quilt Revival, Mary and her friends had documented and verified oral quilt histories, block histories, and quilt scholarship. Barbara Bannister, Mary Schaffer, Cuesta Benberry, Betty Harriman, Edna Ford, Florence Peto, Joy Craddock, and Delores Hinson not only wrote to each other about blocks and quilts, but also discussed what might be the next “big thing” on the quilt market. In 1964, they predicted doll quilts would make a comeback, and sure enough, it happened.
These women wrote detailed letters to each other, often including drawn diagrams of quilt blocks on onion skin paper (so as not to add too much weight to the letter). These diagrams were often carefully shaded in with colored pencils to suggest a fabric palette. The recipient of the letter and diagram would add her information and then send the letter on to the next person. Sometimes these letters would only be written between two people, and sometimes more than two folks were involved. These Round Robins forged strong friendships between quilters which lasted for years and eventually turned to phone calls and even visits. Besides the women listed above, Maxine Teele, Lenice Bacon, Ruth Finley, Sally Garoutte, Joyce Gross, and Ruth Parr either participated in the Round Robins at one time or another or with singular correspondence with Mary Schafer. Not only would these women exchange quilting knowledge and information, but they also exchanged antique fabrics. All of these women enjoyed re-creating antique quilts and they deemed it important to use as many fabrics as possible from the era of the original quilt.
The one detail which cannot be ignored about these literary Round Robins was their quilt scholarship. Often these Round Robins resulted in quilt histories we still use today. Mary Schafer was the recipient of Betty Harriman’s unfinished quilts when Betty died. Mary finished every one of those quilts, and now many of those dual-quilted treasures reside in museums and universities’ textile collections. In turn, Mary Schafer gave Cuesta Benberry more than one hundred quilt blocks she constructed. Cuesta donated the blocks to the Quilters Hall of Fame. Eventually the bulk of Mary Schafer’s correspondence was donated to the Michigan State University Museum in 1998 for quilt research.** And if there is any doubt about the importance of these Round Robins or the women behind them, note that six of them – Mary Schafer, Cuesta Benberry, Lenice Bacon, Florence Peto, Sally Garoutte, and Joyce Gross were inducted into the Quilters Hall of Fame.
In the midst of the Round Robins and syndicated quilting columns exists another source of quilting information – quilting newsletters. Notice I didn’t say magazines. Quilt magazines weren’t published until the seventies. However, some enterprising quilters thought it would be great idea to have quilt blocks, quilt history, and questions from quilters all housed in a publication available for a small fee. These weren’t the slick publications we’re used to now. These newsletters bore only a few pages, printed on a traditional typewriter, and run through a mimeograph machine or printed at a shop. The pages were stapled together, and it was mailed out to subscribers. Relying heavily on manual labor, some of these were monthly publications and others were quarterly. And while there were several, we will discuss the four up-and-comers, and then the one newsletter who spearheaded the quilt magazines we’re so used to today.
Aunt Kate’s Quilting Bee – This publication was begun in 1962 by Glenna Boyd (1919-2006) and published until 1980. Printed on glossy paper with some fuzzy black and white photographs, this publication gives us a wonderful look at our quilting heritage. Aunt Kate also re-published patterns from the 1920’s and 1930’s, crocheted edges from a book originally published in 1916, contemporary apron and potholder patterns as well as original quilt block patterns from her readers.
With this little newsletter, it was all about the quilt blocks. No slick advertising or guest quilters. Most of the quilts discussed were comprised of complex quilt blocks meant to be hand pieced. If you were lucky enough to be published in Aunt Kate’s, you could earn up to $9 – and that’s if you completed all the required elements in good order.
Subscribers were expected to create templates from the printed instructions and put those into labeled folders or large envelopes for future use. There was a section in every issue where women asked for other block patterns to be swapped or purchased. Blocks by Nancy Cabot were in high demand (“Nancy Cabot” was published in the Chicago Tribune in the 1930’s and in two pamphlets of block patterns in 1934 and 1935). There was also a section in the newsletter where subscribers wrote in looking for pen pals and Round Robin opportunities. Not only were full names and addresses printed, but birthdays and wedding anniversaries as well.
This little newsletter was very much a labor of love from Glenna Boyd to her fellow quilters. Glenna wrote and published Aunt Kate’s Quilting Bee while she held down a full-time job and had children. She designed over 396 of the quilt blocks herself. Yes, there were a few typos, but she loved her fellow quilters, calling them rather fondly her “girls.”
4 J’s – Joy Craddock published the 4 J’s from her home in Denison, Texas. She was an avid pattern collector and very much interested in researching and documenting quilt history. Unfortunately, this is really all we know about Joy and her newsletter, the 4 J’s. Repeated internet searches returned little except this newsletter contained quilt patterns in a similar set up as Aunt Kate’s Quilting Bee.
Jay Bees (or JB’s) – Again, this newsletter had a similar set up as the first two. Claudine Moffat published Jay Bees from her home, a black and white publication with stapled pages. Heavy on quilt patterns and construction, it also dealt with quilt history. It was popular enough that it is mentioned in the 1993 Uncoverings: The Research Papers of the American Quilt Study Group.
Little N’ Big – This newsletter was almost a carbon copy of the other three. It was also mentioned in Uncoverings: The Research Papers of the American Quilt Study Group, which means it had a fairly large readership. Unlike the other three, Betty Flack sought and obtained a copyright for her publication.
These four basic, black and white, no frills, no advertising, heavy-on-the-quilt-patterns newsletters offered quilters a chance to obtain new patterns, connect with other quilters, join Round Robins, and try new techniques. Suddenly the quilting world reached beyond the confines of their towns and states. And set up the market for this “little” newsletter…
Quilters Newsletter published by Bonnie and George Leman. It began publication in September 1969 and was distributed monthly except for July and August (which were combined into a summer edition). When it finally ceased operation in 2016, it had served quilters for 47 years. This is truly the mothership of quilt magazines. The newsletter grew to look like editions similar to the one above…
But they started like this…
When printing and postage became too costly, it moved from monthly to bimonthly subscriptions. Along the way it lost its “homey” look to transform into the professional quilters magazines we’re accustomed to today. From Quilters Newsletter, other quilting magazines took inspiration and began their publishing debuts: Fons and Porter, McCall’s Quilting, Quiltmaker are just a few who followed in Bonnie’s and George’s steps. Quilters Newsletter was the first quilting publication I subscribed to, and from its pages I learned quilt history, construction methods, and saw the latest quilting supplies and fabric. There are still back issues available via the internet if you want to see how it transformed itself over the years. Quilters Newsletter led the way, broke the path, set the mold for the slick publications we’re used to finding in our mailboxes (either the one the US Postal Service drops it in or the inbox of our email account).
In closing, I’d like to suggest things haven’t really changed all that much. We still have books about quilting. Type “quilting” in Amazon’s search bar and literally thousands of book suggestions appear. These can be purchased in e-versions, hardback, or paperback versions. Quilters haven’t stopped writing books. As a matter of fact more books on quilts, quilters, and quilting are available than at any other time in history.
Newsletters have changed. Long gone are the black and white mimeographed publications with the fuzzy black and white pictures and template-based quilt patterns. Today even our guild newsletters take on a professional look and are primarily available only as e-versions. Printing and postage are prohibitive of anything else. And there may be a few syndicated quilt columns around. Social media – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the like – have removed syndication from a few and placed it squarely in the hands of posters, bloggers, YouTubers, and Tic-Tockers. I post my blog every Wednesday mornings myself, across all of its platforms.
In my opinion, Round Robins are still very much the same. However, instead of writing letters by long hand and including hand drawn diagrams on onion skin paper, we send group emails and texts, complete with pictures we just took with our phone. We ask our quilter friends if they have this pattern, or more of a certain fabric. Do you think this color scheme will work? And instead of waiting patiently by our mailbox for a week or so, we get instant responses.
Yes, quilting has changed. But in so many, many ways, it’s stayed the same. And in my opinion, I think that’s a good, good thing.
Until next week, remember The Details Make the Difference!
Love and Stitches,
*Mary Schafer, an American Quilt Maker written by Gwen Marston. UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN REGIONAL; Illustrated edition (March 25, 2004) ISBN–10: 0472068555 ISBN-13: 978-0472068555
**Let’s pause and talk about Michigan State University and their acquisition of Mary Schafer’s quilts. Mrs. Schafer was a prolific quilter, and as she grew older she divided her quilt collection into two categories according to date. Each collection contained quilts she made, quilts she finished for Betty Harriman, and antique quilts Mary collected. When Michigan State University obtained the quilts, they sold some of them to pay for the purchase. The quilts which were sold were one-of-a-kind, completely handmade quilts, purchased by individuals at a price far below their value. These quilts, for the most part, have become completely lost to quilt researchers, appraisers, and textile aficionados. Personally, I have an issue with MSU selling those quilts to reimburse the university for the purchase. Gwen Marston goes into much detail about this in her book about Mary.