How the Printing Press Liberated American Quilters

The first printing press in America was set up in Cambridge under the guaranty of Harvard College, during the presidency of Henry Dunster. From this press, established nearly 300 years ago, started the present printing business of the country, and the consequent thousands of newspapers.

I know this sounds like it has absolutely nothing to do with quilting.  Hang tight.  I promise it does.  Just keep in mind that this:

Will eventually equal this:

The blog this week will serve to put our linear history in context with quilts.  During the few years I taught Language Arts, I repeatedly told my students “Nothing ever happens in a vacuum.  Everything written, everything invented, and every theory comes from life experience.”  And it does.  However, the problem with history is quite often we in the present aren’t privy to what exactly in the past affected what is in front of us today.  This post will hopefully show how what was happening in American history influenced and changed the quilting world and will define the moment American quilting celebrated its liberation from the influence of our fellow English quilters.  And this moment of quilty freedom is found in this:

The humble Sampler Quilt.

We briefly delved into this quilt in my two previous posts about constructing and quilting samplers.  What I didn’t go into is how this quilt’s quilty DNA spread to the Signature or Album Quilts

And Friendship Quilts

Sampler, Friendship, and Signature/Album quilts are all intricately woven from the same past, but the grandmother of all these quilts is the Sampler.  Without the Sampler Quilt, we may not have ever had the others in the succession in which they came.  The humble Sampler Quilt was the breakaway quilt which defined American quilters and their quilts. 

By now you may be asking, “Well…how was the printing press involved with this grand quilt revolution?”

Glad you asked.

Once the printing press took up roots over 300 years ago in America, the printing industry served a nation during its Revolution and afterwards,  until the 24-hour news cycle and Social Media were born.  I can remember as a child growing up in Alamance County, we anxiously waited on the Daily Times-News to hit the door step in the afternoon (no morning papers back then).  I could read it before Dad got home, but I had to make sure it was properly put back together before placing it in his chair.  Newspapers served to inform us and keep us entertained.  As more newspapers and eventually magazines were produced, printing technology got better and better.  Finally, sometime around the late 1800’s, newspapers began to develop better graphic expertise.  Then some brilliant person (I never could find out who, and I spent hours down this rabbit hole), decided it was a good idea to print quilt blocks and the directions in the womens’ section of the newspaper.  This took off and remained a presence in many newspapers until the mid-1960’s.  It was this idea which eventually led to the Sampler Quilt.  The newspaper would print the directions and a drawing of the block.  Folks would make the block.  The next week another block and its directions would be published, and folks would make that block.

After a while, a quilter would have a stack of blocks.  Sometimes quilters would simply keep the blocks as a reference, kind of like a pattern, just in case they wanted to make an entire quilt out of a certain block.  Other quilters, once they had a stack of blocks, decided to sew these blocks together into a quilt – and the Sampler Quilt was born.

Today, we have no idea what a radical idea this was in the quilt world.  Up until the late 1800s, American quilts imitated English quilts.  This meant most American quilts were Medallion style quilts,

as this was popular among our English quilting friends.  Only rows and columns in quilts?  Completely unheard of.  But American quilters had to do something with all those blocks and a quilt set in rows was the best answer. 

Okay…okay…  I hear some of you in the back.  “What about Crazy Quilts?  Weren’t they uniquely American?”


Like Sampler Quilts, Crazy Quilts burst on the sewing scene in the late 1800s, which does make them contemporaries.  However, besides just the difference in appearance between the two

There are some other obvious disparities.  First, the Crazy Quilt was heavily influenced by the English embroidery and Japanese art displayed at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. American audiences were drawn to the satin stitches used in English embroidery, which created a painterly surface, and is reflected in many Crazy Quilts. The displays shown at the Japanese pavilion of silk-screened work and Japanese pottery with a cracked-glaze also inspired the American audiences. Similar aesthetics began to show up in Crazy Quilts, including unique patterns, and stitching that resembled spider webs (for good luck) and fans.  Overall, Sampler quilts didn’t reflect English, Japanese, or any other country’s influence.  They were uniquely ours. 

Second, technically Crazy Quilts aren’t quilts.  Quilts, by definition, are constructed of three layers, which we broadly class as quilt top, batting, and the quilt back.  Crazy Quilts have only a front and a back – no middle layer.  

By the 1920’s and 1930’s, Sampler Quilts were in full swing and at this point, the differences between this quilt and its European counterpart were plainly seen.  Our Sampler Quilts had rows and sashing…and sometimes they were even set on-point. 

Around 1890, still early in the Sampler Quilt’s life, the quilt world began to see spin offs.  Friendship, and Album/Signature Quilts began to appear.  These quilts were gifts of remembrance.  Signature Quilts – or Album Quilts as they were better known – were closely related to the popularity of autograph books or albums, which were all the rage during this time.  In order to understand the importance of these quilts, try to remember Signature Quilts, Album Quilts, and autograph books were the social media of their time. 

Signature Quilts weren’t comprised of only one or two types of blocks, such as the way Double Wedding Ring is constructed.  Quilters would choose various blocks which had a space situated in the block where a large-ish plain piece of fabric could be used.  In this space, they would write their name and perhaps a sentiment.  The Old Order Mennonite and Amish would include their mailing addresses, and often the names of husbands and children.  When viewing some Signature Quilts, it’s interesting to note that all of the writing looks the same.  This little idiosyncrasy has to do with the fact sometimes the person who had the best handwriting was tapped to make all the signatures.  And sometimes the person who supplied the fabric for the quilt, but perhaps didn’t put a stitch in it, still got their name on the quilt as a way of expressing the group’s thanks. 

About the same time Signature Quilts gained traction, Friendship Quilts also appeared.  Friendship Quilts differ in at least two different ways from Signature (or Album) Quilts.  Signature Quilts were given as a token of remembrance.  Someone gets married and moves away – make them a Signature Quilt so they can remember all their friends and family.  Someone special hits a milestone in their life?  A Signature Quilt may be just the thing to celebrate.  Friendship Quilts were used interchangeably for the same reasons, but they were also made for other occasions:

  1.  They were made as Freedom Quilts.  These quilts were made by some communities and given to young men when they reached their 21st birthday.  The quilts celebrated the fact the young man had come of age and could now pursue his own career and life outside of his family.
  2. Quite often they served as Fundraiser Quilts.  Both quilters and non-quilters alike could purchase a block and have their names inked on them.  After enough blocks were sold to make the quilt, the quilt was auctioned off to raise more money.  These quilts were made to fund missionaries, schools, libraries, and during the Civil War, many were made to fund the Union Army.

Friendship Quilts also varied from Signature Quilts in their construction.  Signature Quilts could mimic Samplers and have a variety of blocks.  Friendship Quilts were generally constructed from only one or two block patterns.  The simplicity of the quilt allowed many quilters to work on it with little chance of error.  The more quilters who participated, the better the chance of selling more signatures, thus more funds could be raised for whatever cause the quilt was made for.  Friendship quilts were also made for new brides, to honor someone (such as a pastor or schoolteacher), or – like the Signature Quilts – to give to someone who was moving away. 

The legacy of these quilts cannot be overstated.  The signatures on these humble quilts can assist in dating it, as well as give a road map to those people living in a community.  The reason behind making such quilts gives us an idea of what was important to these people and how those priorities shaped communities, towns, and politics (both local, state, and federal).  They are a type of census during a year when there was none.  These quilts have helped both historians, ancestry hounds, and quilters put dates to families, populations, and textiles.

We can’t leave the topic of Signature/Album, and Friendship Quilts without discussing the ink used.  In some of these quilts, names were signed with a pencil and then someone in the quilt group embroidered over the name.  However, a large number of these quilts had the names inked in by either the person in the group with the best handwriting or a professional calligrapher.  There are records of inked names in quilts as early as 1830.   Today, we take ink for granted, whether we’re writing a grocery list with a Bic Pen or using a PH balanced, heirloom quality pen for signing a quilt label.  It’s important to remember ink during the 1830’s wasn’t the stable liquid we’re used to now.  It could be quite acidic.  Over the years, this acidity has caused the inked signatures to disintegrate, sometimes leaving nothing but holes in the Friendship and Signature Quilts. 

Oak Tree with Gall

According to Margaret T. Ordonez, a professor in the Textile and Clothing Department at the University of Rhode Island, iron sulfate and nut gall (gall forms around the wounds on the bark of oak trees to encase gall wasps’ eggs) were combined to make the basic ink used throughout the 19th and part of the 20th centuries.  In the early years, the problem arose when the tannic acid in the gall would harden the cellulose fibers in the fabric.  A chemical reaction called hydrolysis would occur, causing the cellulose fibers to degrade.  This caused damage to occur over time.  Exposure to light and water helped the degradation along.  The earlies signed blocks show the remaining ink smeared or almost invisible – or worse yet, holes in the fabric. 

People also used other elements to make ink.  Indigo, Prussian blue, silver nitrate, madder, potash with wood tar, and lampblack were mixed with either linseed oil, or borax and shellac.  India ink (which is made from carbon) mixed with diluted hydrochloride acid (found in bleaching agents), seemed to be the most resistant to fading from either light or water. 

Textile Stamps

Ink was applied to the fabric using stencils, stamps, or (most commonly) freehand.  The stencils were usually made from copper, tin, or nickel.  A woman would have one made for herself which portrayed her sense of style.  It may have her name surrounded by a circle made from feathers or flowers, or it may just be simple block letter.  These stencils and stamps were used for more than just signing quilts.  They were used to label clothes and linens.  Since most women washed their clothes in public places, it was important to mark your clothes.  Wealthier women sometimes had their laundry sent out, so the identifying marks were necessary to ensure the correct laundry returned to its owner.  Later, as the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, stamp makers learned how to make stamps with changeable letters.  We are so fortune our indelible inks are PH balanced.

Today, Signature and Friendship quilts are still made, and often for the very same reasons they began to be constructed in the late 1800’s.  It’s a beautiful way to honor a quilter who is moving away or who has reached a milestone. 

I received a beautiful Friendship Quilt when my term as President of the High Point Quilt Guild was over.  I was the founding President and those wonderful women and men made me a Friendship Quilt from Friendship Star blocks (our guild’s block).  They handed off blocks and set up a sew day to make it – all right under my nose.  It remains one of my most treasured possessions. 

Until Next Week, Quilt On!

Sherri and Sam

5 replies on “How the Printing Press Liberated American Quilters”

Sherri, Wednesday has quickly become one of my most favorite days. If truth be told my husband looks forward to it too! Your weekly column is the reason.
Once again this week you have not disappointed. Fabulous article! Thank you once again.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: