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Quilts are Better with Cheddar

This color:

And this color:

And the orange in this print:

Is known as “cheddar.”  And today’s blog will examine exactly what this color is, how it came about, and what is its place in our quilting universe.  A non-quilter may call this color “orange.”  And it is.  Through the years it’s been classed as orange, gold, and occasionally, rust.  This one color has carried many names until one day it hired a full-time agent and the first thing the agent said was, “Honey, you gotta change your name.  Lots of people don’t like orange.”  Thus, the moniker “cheddar” was born.  And you have to admit, cheddar sounds homier and more appealing than orange, gold, or rust (which makes this child of the sixties think about the psychedelic colors of the seventies). 

Cheddar was birthed in the mid 1800’s – about the same time as synthetic dyes were developed for green, indigo, and Turkey red.  Then it was known as chrome orange because of the minerals used to produce the color (more on this later).  This color was directly influenced by the by the Moravian potters from Pennsylvania and North Carolina, who used an orange glaze on some of their pottery.  It also received a popularity boost from the Germanic furniture of the period which also used orange, gold, and rust in the painted design work.  In many ways, cheddar was an easy dye to work with – cloth could just as readily be dyed at home as at a manufacturing plant.  The dye came in powder form and when mixed correctly, would produce enough orange dye for several yards of fabric. 

However, also like many of the other synthetic dyes of this period, cheddar has a dark history.  It had a high lead and antimony content – both of which are poisonous over a period of time.  So much chrome antimony was used, the color was often called simply “antimony,” or “chrome orange.”  Of course, the folks using this dye then had no idea it could be lethal.  All they knew was they really liked that cheddar color – liked it so much that literally hundreds of yards of it were produced.  There was so much of it, quilters began to consider it a neutral

When quilt historians, collectors, and appraisers look at these older, cheddar-infused quilts, it can be noted the chrome orange can go one of two ways.  If the quilt has been carefully kept and only seldom washed, the color will remain a beautiful cheddar.  The old chrome orange dyes were color fast and resisted fading, even in direct light.  However, if the quilt was frequently washed, and depending on the acid or alkali balance in the soap, the orange would be drawn out of the fabric, leaving behind a pale yellow-green color. 

Another aspect of all of this orange-ness is that it helps historians, appraisers, and collectors date the quilt and form good hypotheses on where the quilt originated.  The majority of cheddar quilts were made from 1860 to 1880 and came primarily from Pennsylvania.  However, post-civil war, the South produced a lot of orange quilts, too. Besides being readily available, the orange dye was inexpensive, and for a part of the country in financial distress, cheddar helped to brighten up fabric quite a bit.  This orange found its way into a regional type of color:

Southern Cheddar

And was used in solid and plaid fabric.

Post-Civil War Orange Plaid

If I had to give this cheddar fabric another name, I’d call it “The Come Back Kid.”  For years its popularity waned and peaked. During the Depression Era, it was tinted with white and became a pastel – almost an orange sherbet color – and was frequently paired with lavender.

1930’s Orange
Child’s Feedsack Dress with Oranges and Lavenders

In the 1970’s, it was everywhere – from clothing to cars to interior design.  It fit the psychedelic and flower power fashion well.  As for quilts… I can tell you what I remember.  When I first started quilting seriously in the late 1990’s we were warned to use yellows and oranges sparingly.  These colors were only used to add a little “sparkle” to your quilt top but weren’t supposed to be utilized as one of the main fabrics – it would detract from the entire quilt top by drawing the viewer’s eyes to the color. 

But back then, I don’t think we had any idea what lovely shades, tints, and hues of orange the fabric manufacturers would produce.  Reproduction quilts gained popularity, and with increasing interest in this field, fabric houses had to produce cheddars, because this color was used in Civil War quilts.  When the Modern Quilt Movement emerged in the 2000’s, they embraced the color orange and soon it was showing up in large numbers of their quilts.  As a matter of fact, orange was so popular with this movement that the Modern Quilt Guild chose orange as one of the show colors for Quilt Con 2013 (the very first Quilt Con).

Modern Oranges

However, no one has done more to promote the color orange than Sandra Mitchell.  Sandra Mitchell ran the Midwest Quilt Exchange in Ohio.  Among quilt collectors, Sandra was known as a dealer’s dealer.  Her ability to spot a quilt which held not only superb workmanship, but also historical significance was amazing.  When she suddenly passed away in 2000, her huge estate was liquidated, including her hoard of orange/cheddar quilts.  The collection was extensive, and the last quilt wasn’t sold until 2002.  But from that time to the present, anytime a cheddar quilt is seen in a book or exhibition, chances are it came from the Sandra Mitchell Collection. 

So, where does cheddar play in our quilt field today?  If you’re a Modern Quilter, you may have used this orange in a number of your quilts or seen it in quilts displayed within your guild.  If you’re a Reproduction Quilt fan and your time period is the Civil War or Feedsacks, you’re also probably well-acquainted with the color in different shades and tints.  If you’re an applique fanatic like me, I know you keep oranges tucked away for flower centers, buds, blooms, sunflowers, fruit, and pumpkins.  But what about the “traditional” quilter?  Since the color cheddar shows up in prints and batiks, many times it works its way into a quilt without much thought. 

But the solid oranges out there…

Are gorgeous.  Paired with gray, blue, black, olive, or white, they’re a sumptuous quilting lot.  I’ve even seen it used with bright pinks when it was offset by white.  As you’re pondering possible future cheddar use, let me remind you one more time …

There are no quilt police.

I honestly believe quilting has moved well past any possible list of do’s and don’ts as far as color is concerned.  If you like color use it.  If it makes you happy, put it in every quilt you make.  If you look at the quilts in our quilting lineage, you’ll note our foremothers used what they had, what they could get, and what they wanted.  As a result, you’ll find quilts like this:

Faded Cheddar Quilt Circa 1860

And this:

They abundantly used orange without a second thought.  I love the colors orange and purple together. Those colors work well in flowers and in Halloween quilts.  So the next time you find some fabric with orange in it, or better yet a gorgeous solid orange that reminds you of sherbet, go for it.  Put it in your next quilt.  Remember, everything’s better with some cheddar.

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

7 replies on “Quilts are Better with Cheddar”

It’s funny… I used to never use orange in my pieced quilts but used it liberally in my appliquéd ones. One day I figured out how incongruous this was and now it appears in my pieced quilts.

I love orange and use it a lot in my quilts…sometimes as the main color. Thanks for giving us this history of the color. Very interesting.

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