Dating quilts can be a tricky business. Quilt historians use what is called comparative dating when they’re trying to figure out how old a quilt could be. That means they compare the fabric in the quilt with other similar fabrics in order to get an approximate date. For instance, Bubble Gum Pink was a popular color fabric in the 1920’s. If a quilt has that color in it, it’s safe to say it was made during the Roaring Twenties or after. Quilt historians will date a quilt according to the most recent fabric found in the top. They will also look for clues in embellishments and finishes – such as a fringed edge. If a quilt has fringe around the edges, it’s a fairly safe bet it dates somewhere around the pre-1860’s.
Dating quilts isn’t exactly accurate. It would have been much better if folks had put a label on their quilt. But for a lot of quilt history, labels haven’t been a “thing.” For the most part, quilts were considered everyday household items, without a great deal of significance. The only quilts that may have been an exception to this were the marriage quilts made for the new bride and groom and the signature quilts that were usually made for folks that were moving out of town.
This is really a crying shame. I love old quilts and would want to know who made each antique quilt I own and where it originated from. Some fabrics make the location of the quilt easier to identify – such as the Alamance Plaids from Alamance County, North Carolina. Life would be so much easier if every quilt had a label on it.
If You Make It Then You Need to Put a Label on It
That’s what I’d like to talk about in this blog – labels. Not how to make them, but what to put on them, and to encourage you to put one on every quilt you make. As a quilter, you must realize that right now the most important thing about your quilt is A) that it’s finally finished and B) where is that quilt going to live (i.e. is it destined to be a gift)? However, years from now that very quilt may be a topic of a dating discussion. Make life easier for future quilt historians – put some information on that quilt label.
The first important piece of information on that quilt should be your name. Your legal name and not just a nickname or title. For instance, when I make my granddarlings a quilt, not only do I put my title (“Mimi”), but also my full name, Sherri M. Fields. You can use a title or nickname on that quilt label, just be sure to have your legal name somewhere on it. This could help so much in the future. Whoever ends up with that quilt can research where you lived and maybe even find additional quilts that you made.
The second piece of information should be the location the quilt was made – city and state – and the date the quilt was finished (because we all know the date we start the quilt and the date we finish the quilt can be months and months maybe even years apart). Those two facts are mandatory in my mind. But there are a few other things that I put on a quilt label. If the quilt was made for a special occasion (such as wedding or birthday), I add that to the label.
But I also add a few other pieces of information to aid in the quilt’s documentation. If I didn’t do the quilting, I add the name of the quilter. If I use a pattern or base my quilt on a pattern, I add the name of the pattern as well as the designer. If I use a particular line of fabrics (for instance, if they’re all Fig Tree Fabrics – one of my favorite lines), I add that.
Recently I began adding one esoteric item to my label – the average cost of an everyday item. I know that seems like something completely un-quilt related. But one day I was reading about another favorite fabric designer of mine – Tula Pink – and she does this. It helps put the quilt in a historical framework that years from now could be very helpful to quilt historians. So along with everything else on my label, I now add the cost of a loaf of bread or a gallon of gas, or something significant that happened that day. For instance, I was working on a cute applique quilt the day that 9-11 occurred. That fact that this horrendous event took place while I was making that quilt is documented on the label.
When a Label is not a Label
We tend to think of labels as square-ish pieces of fabric filled with all that information sewed onto the back of our quilt. It’s generally the last thing put on a quilt (a bad idea that we will discuss later) and when the last stitch is put in that, we’ve officially just finished the quilt. But there are other ways to document that quilt that are very creative.
I have a fellow quilter that never puts a label on a quilt. She quilts that information in on her quilt top. This quilter is a very talented long arm artist who does wonderful freehand work. She simply quilts her name, the date, and any additional information somewhere in the quilt (usually the border). It’s subtle, but it’s there. And unlike most labels, there isn’t the possibility of it falling off.
Another quilter I know who’s a superb applique quilter, designs a tiny applique date and her name and hand sews the applique pieces somewhere in a square on her quilt top. Granted the date and her name are the only thing found in that square because her applique pieces are so small, but it’s there.
The last non-label label I would like to throw at you isn’t a label at all, it’s a journal. I know for some of you this may be a non-starter but hear me out. I like to write, so journaling my quilt is not a hardship for me, and I hope that after I explain my method, you decide to journal at least one or two of your quilts, too.
First, I don’t write a journal for every quilt I make. I only do this for the significant ones. The last quilt I journaled was my At Piece with My Past. Every block in this quilt is significant.
Each block represents a particular person or time in my life. I wrote about what those times and people meant to me and how they changed me. In the back of my mind, one of my granddaughters or my daughter will eventually have that quilt. I want them to know about events and people in my life just in case my mind is completely gone at some point in the future. I want the people those blocks represent (my mother, my aunts, my bestest girlfriends) not to be forgotten. That journal is tangible evidence of them.
However, I didn’t stop with the stories about the quilt blocks. The pattern is also in the journal. I tend to write all over my patterns, so all of my notes are there – they tell about the design decisions I made, the changes I decided on, and a great deal of my thought process. Fabric swatches are also in there, neatly glued to a piece of cardstock. These swatches are not only the fabrics I decided to use, but also those I discarded.
I put all of this a school binder-type notebook that has pockets on the inside covers. In those pockets I have the sales receipts from the stores or internet sites I ordered any fabric from. This will let my family know how much I spent and how much fabric cost way back in the day. And since a lot of that fabric came from the 2012 Spring Paducah AQS Show, I personally think it will be fun for them to look back on these.
This is the way I journal a quilt. If you decide this is something you want to do, make the journal your own design. Put pictures and the details you want in that notebook. What is important to me may not mean anything to you. Make it yours. While this is an idea you can’t pursue with every quilt, for the significant quilts in your life, it’s invaluable information.
Why the Label Should Never Be Sewed on Last
When I began quilting in 1988, the label was always the last thing that was attached to the quilt. You pieced and/or appliqued your top, sandwiched the entire thing, and quilted it. The binding went on and then the label. When the last stitch was put in the label, your quilt was officially finished.
Let me tell you, 1988 was a different world. Despite whatever else was going on, the world was a bit more honest place back then. I rarely, if ever, heard about a quilt being stolen.
Since that time, quilts have been stolen from quilt shows, lost in postal transit, and have disappeared in other nefarious ways. Now a quilt label not only supplies information about the quilt, it’s also an identifier. If your label can be removed, that identifier is lost. If you put your label on last, it has to be hand sewn into place and those stitches can easily be removed. So, instead of putting that label on last, machine sew it on your backing before the quilt is quilted. It will be doubly re-enforced – by your machine stitches and by the quilting stitches.
In short, that label ain’t going nowhere. And if, God forbid, your quilt is stolen or lost in transit, someone can help it find its way back home.
Label that quilt, fellow quilters! For history’s sake and for security purposes, to paraphrase Beyonce’ – If you like it then you need to put a label on it!
Love and Stitches,
Sherri and Sam