Whole Cloth Quilts – The Mystery and the Methods

Around the early 1800’s three types of quilts became popular:  the whole cloth, broderie perse, and medallion quilts. Several of my past blogs have featured medallion quilts – how to make them, why the construction process sharpens both your design and quilting skills, and how they’re still relevant in the 21st century.  Today I want to talk about whole cloth quilts.

18th Century White Whole Cloth Quilt

Whole cloth quilts were status symbol quilts in the mid-1800’s.  Either a woman had the leisure time and the expertise to produce one of these quilts or she had the money to purchase it.  Making a whole cloth quilt not only took time and resources, it also required exceptionally fine needlework skills.  The majority of whole cloth quilts were constructed of white fabric – thus they are also known as white quilts.  However antique whole cloth quilts exist in other solid colors and there are whole cloth quilts made from print fabric.  There will be more on both of these a bit later.  But first let’s take a deep dive in the quilting DNA of white, whole cloth quilts. 

While most of our quilt blocks and techniques take their origins from England, whole cloth quilts can declare dual nationality – England and France.  From  French shipping records dating from the early 1800’s, we find whole cloth quilts coming from Provencal, France, primarily around the Marseilles area. 

As a matter of fact, so many of these French white quilts were imported, the ships’ manifests simply denote them as “French Quilts” or “Marseilles Quilts.”  This is also true when these white, whole cloth quilts were listed in household inventories, bills of sale, and wills.  England was also producing their share of whole cloth quilts, but these were not as popular as the ones from France. 

Welch Whole Cloth Quilt — notice the double stitching lines

The English quilts were a bit different from the French quilts – so different it’s pretty easy to tell which white quilts came from either country.  The English whole cloth white quilts came from Wales.  French quilts generally had smaller stitches (sometimes as many as 22 stitches per inch) than the English quilts.  And the quilts from Wales had repetitive motifs – spirals, paisleys, fans, hearts, leaves, and large circles.  They also had two or three borders separated by double stitching lines.  French quilts generally had no distinct borders.

At this point, there are a couple of issues which muddy the waters for quilt historians.  First, it’s important to remember whole cloth quilts were status symbols – something which is a bit odd for quilts as a whole.  Most quilt early quilts were made for warmth and beauty, with the best quilts saved for guest beds and hope chests.  However, they were not seen as status symbols. Remember a white, whole cloth meant the family was wealthy enough for the woman to have the time and skills to make one or (most likely) the money to purchase one.  This implies just because a whole cloth quilt was in possession of a family, it in no way meant someone in the family made it. 

The second issue to contend with is this:  As a group, white, whole cloth quilts can be difficult to accurately date.  Many of the quilts were “Frankensteined.”  The Marselles Quilts were smaller than most typical American-made quilts.  The French quilts were made to rest on top of the bed and not necessarily hang down on the sides and bottom.  Most American households liked their quilts to have the side drops, as well as be long enough to cover the bottom of the mattress or tick, and reach the top of it, too.  The Marselles Quilts were large enough to only cover the center of a bed.  As a result (and especially as mattresses became larger), women would sew several white quilts together in order to have a quilt which would completely cover their bed.  The best white quilt was used as the center, then additional quilts would be cut apart and sewn on the sides, bottom and top.  As a result, it’s nearly impossible to accurately give one date to the entire quilt. 

The Tucker family quilt was actually “Frankensteined” from four white, whole cloth quilts.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation found itself in possession of a “Frankensteined” white quilt which was purported to have once belonged to the Tucker Family – a prominent family who lived in Williamsburg in the 1700s.  The family was wealthy enough to have owned several of these white quilts, so this quilt may have been in their possession.  It was donated to the Foundation, and the members decided to have the quilt x-rayed in order to discover more about the quilt and how old it really was.  The results showed four quilts were sewn together to make the large quilt, ranging in dates from 1815 – 1830.

  Each more than likely had a different maker, as stitch length and thread composition are varied, as well as the make and weaves of the fabrics.  This study simply re-emphasizes the trouble quilt historians and archivists have in dating some of the white, whole cloth quilts. 

So, how were these quilts made?  The top of the quilts was usually made from finely woven fabric and the batting of choice was wool.  The wool batting allowed for a raised effect when the quilt was quilted.  In addition, trapunto was also sometimes used.  If you’ve never heard the term trapunto before, let me explain.  When a quilter uses this technique, it means they add additional stuffing between the quilting stitches, like this:

Trapunto makes the unquilted areas or less-quilted areas more pronounced.  Sometimes if a wool batt is used, only small, tight quilting stitches are needed to make the quilt look as if it has this effect.  However, at other times, some additional help is needed. Which brings us to what was used as the backing of a whole cloth quilt.  Most of the time, the backing was comprised of a fabric of less quality than was used with the top.  The weave was looser, so the quilter could tease the fibers apart and insert additional batting, cotton, or cotton cording in the trapunto section.  However, in the best white, whole cloth quilts, the back and the front are indistinguishable. 

Antique colored whole cloth quilt

It’s worth mentioning there were also richly colored whole cloth quilts made during the 1800s.  These were made with glazed wool and wool batting, in bold, bright colors, particularly the colorfast indigo and red.  Now, here’s where quilting history gets a little confusing again.  These deeply colored, wool quilts were the successors of the woolen petticoats.  In the 18th century, women wore colored, woolen petticoats which had been intricately quilted.  To show these petticoats off, their dresses had an open panel in the front, like so everyone could see the lovely quilting designs. 

You have to admit, it would be a shame to cover up such a beautiful petticoat.

Later some of these petticoats were made into quilts by cutting the length in half and sewing the two resulting panels together.  This is what makes tracing the history of some of these richly colored whole cloth quilts difficult.  Often in books, household inventories, and wills a quilt isn’t mentioned at all.  It’s listed as a petticoat, even though it’s been “Frankensteined” into a quilt.

In the late 1800’s and into the early 1900’s, fabric manufacturers began producing flowered chintz fabrics.  We see their use in broderie perse and medallion quilts.  However, if a quilter came across a piece of fabric she didn’t want to cut up, she may have decided to make a whole cloth quilt from the fabric.  These quilts weren’t as popular as the white or colored whole cloth quilts, but there are a few remaining print whole cloth quilts still in the possession of some collectors.  Unlike the other two whole cloth designs, the quilting is not the prominent feature – the fabric is.  Therefore, the quilting is simpler so the fabric can be showcased. 

Whole cloth made from printed fabric

Whole cloth quilts began with the Arts and Crafts Movement, and they continued to be popular into the first half of the 20th century.  Then they became less fashionable with both quilters and fewer households purchased them.  However, recently they’re making a comeback.  With the increasing number of quilters who have access to long arms and stationary sewing machines designed for quilting, more quilters are trying their hand at whole cloth quilts.  This time the quilts are made from any color or print imaginable and the thread ranges from white to variegated (which is really pretty on a whole cloth quilt) to any color the quilter wants.  Whole cloth quilts are once again showing up in quilt shows and in quilting groups.  If you think one of these wonderful quilts may end up on your quilty to-do list, keep a couple of things in mind.

  1.  Many quilt stores now sell quilt tops with a quilting pattern printed on it so you can follow the design to easily make your first whole cloth quilt.
  2. If you want to make one of these in a more traditional way, make sure your fabric is firm and has a fairly tight weave so the quilting stitches can be seen. 
  3. Be sure to prewash your fabric so there won’t be any shrinkage.
  4. Cut the batting larger than the size of the quilt (at least three inches larger if you’re hand quilting or using a domestic sewing machine; four inches or more if using a long arm).
  5. The choice of thread is important.  Audition several colors and don’t be afraid to throw in metallic or variegated. 
  6. Mark the quilting design on the top.  Washable pens or pencils are the markers of choice.  A Frixion pen could leave permanent “ghost” marks and an air soluble may fade before you finish.
  7. And finally…the most important thing to remember is work from the center out when basting and stitching.

I love writing about the history of quilts and quilt blocks.  And when I find some technique or block that’s been around for a long time, and discover quilters are still using them today, I just think it’s the coolest thing.  I believe one of the most remarkable characteristics about quilters is we take a technique or a block which is been around for years, put a modern spin on it, and twist it with our own uniqueness.  This is what keeps our art alive and vital. 

Couple of housekeeping items before I end this week’s block.  First of all, I am in the process of starting a podcast.  The segments won’t be weekly, but will probably begin once a month until I can bring myself up-to-speed. This is an idea I began toying with during the Pandemic, but it took me longer to pull things together than I thought.  First, the microphone I used for my Zoom meetings didn’t work … or at least work well… with a podcast.  I recorded one of my blogs and it sounded horrible.  And then I had one critical set back:  My blogs are highly visual.  I bombard you with graphics and pictures and I can’t do this with my podcasts.  So, some of what I planned to do had to be drastically re-written.  I’ll keep you updated, but as of right now, I know Sherriquiltsalot will be available soon on Spotify.  More details to come, I’m sure.

For those of you who have asked, videos are still on the horizon.  I just need some help with equipment and a tutorial on editing. I have the software, so that’s the first step…

Until next week, Quilt On!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

3 replies on “Whole Cloth Quilts – The Mystery and the Methods”

I have just discovered your blog and am so so happy! I will have many many enjoyable hours reading all your past posts. Your depth of knowledge is incredible and beautifully presented. I look forward to your podcasts!

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