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Should You Label Your Quilt?

For most of history, Anonymous was a woman

–Virginia Wolfe

**Be forewarned, today’s blog is a bit of a rant.

I collect quilts.  By museum standards or some individual collectors’ quilts, I am the low man on the totem pole.  I have less than 30.  The dates of these range from roughly 1840 until the 1930’s.  I collect what appeals to me, although most of the        quilts are feedsack in origin.  I love these things.  They’re literally in every room of my house.  I have a special affinity for my Sunbonnet Sue quilts because I love that adorable little Miss.  Her quilts live in my bedroom so I can see them first thing in the morning.  What can I say?  Between her and my first cup of coffee, I can muster up a good mood.

Know what I don’t like about those quilts? With the exception of one, none of them have labels. 

None.

Zip.

Nada.

One of the very first things I do when I peruse a quilt for possible purchase is ask “Who made this quilt?  What part of the country/city/state/county did it come from?”  And most of the time, the seller has no idea, because the quilt has come to him/her via third or fourth (or more) hand.  Sometimes, if the planets align and I can recognize a fabric (such as an Alamance Plaid) or a particular type of construction, I can pretty well pinpoint the area the quilt originated from.  But honestly, that’s about as far as I can take my quilts’ genealogies. 

Now for those of you who faithfully put labels on your quilts, you may sit back and enjoy the beverage of your choice while I chastise those quilters who do not label and explain why labels are so important.

For those of you who eschew sewing on a label, I must ask what makes this such an unappealing task?  I’ve heard lots of excuses:

  1.  It’s an extra step.
  2. It’s really not necessary.
  3. It takes too much time.
  4. After putting the final stitch in my binding, sewing on a label is the last thing I want to do.
  5. It will only fall off.

I’m sure there are more reasons why you don’t like to label your quilts.  Your reason may not even be on the list. I know they require a few more stitches and some planning, but please allow me to give you six reasons you should put on a label.

 It’s the holder of the story.

Every quilt tells a story.  It evokes a soul-deep journey.  It may not be a tale of flashing lights and bold heroes.  The story may be as simple as “I had this pattern and a long weekend and two good bottles of wine.  I found everything I needed in my stash, so I made a quilt.”

That’s still a story.

Other quilts hold deeper tales.  I can just about tell you every prayer, tear, and thought that went into the t-shirt quilt I made my brother.  I can tell you how hard I wished Florida was closer to North Carolina when I made my son’s quilt, All Roads Lead Home.  I can explain how proud I was of my daughter when I made her quilt, You Are the Sun, the Moon, and All My Stars.

But if I didn’t put some inkling of this information on the labels, the history behind the quilt would have been lost with me.  The label may not be able to tell the whole story, but it gives a good idea of the thought behind the quilt.  It offers enough information for people to begin to ask questions about the quilt’s pedigree.

It links the quilt’s quilty DNA to other quilts.

This reason requires some explanation. Quilt collectors and historians delight when they discover with certainty who made a quilt.  What gives them an even greater thrill is being able to link the quilt maker to other quilts.  Sometimes this is possible by examining the quilts.  Quilters, like painters and other visual artists, have a certain style – whether it’s color choice, stitch preference, or pattern mastery.  The first quilter who comes to my mind for this is Judy Niemeyer.  To me, it’s apparent when a quilt is made from one of her patterns.  Her quilts simply have a certain type of style which is uniquely hers.  What’s not so apparent is the knowledge if Judy actually made the quilt or did another quilter use her pattern?  If there’s no label on the quilt, it may be hard to know. 

Quilt historians can link certain quilts to quilt makers or their families by studying the quilts and slogging their way through diaries, wills, and household inventories.  This takes time and great attention to detail.

Just think how much easier this would be if there were labels on the quilts! I realize antique quilts were made in a much different time, but even then, special quilts may have identifiers – embroidered initials or names and dates or (if we get lucky) if the occasion for which the quilt was made.  Signature quilts are a bit easier to trace due to all the names and dates on them.

If a quilter labels his/her quilts with the minimum amount of information – name, date and the location the quilt was made – this will make the work of future quilt historians so much easier.  And if you don’t think your quilt is good enough to be the subject of any quilt histories, think again.  Quilts tell us not only about the quilters, but they offer clues to the quilter’s place in society, what the home could have been like, and how they lived.  Through genealogy programs such as Ancestry.com, we now have the ability to look up names quickly and with a great deal of accuracy.  If we have the city and date, we can surmise if the maker and her family were dealing with historical traumas such as the Dust Bowl, the Depression, or the Civil War.  The label would not only tell us about the quilt, but it would also give a lot of information about the quilt in its historical context.  If the label has the location, we can trace the quilter’s life as he/she moves across the continent or is content to remain in one location.  We can track the quilter and her quilts – and this would be amazing!  We could study the quilter and see the progression of her quilt-making skills.   

It lets us know if the quilt was made to recognize or honor a special person or occasion.

This is a nice tidbit of information to know.  Not all quilts are made for these reasons, but the ones which are usually show terrific workmanship.  And many times, such quilts are made by a group instead of a lone quilter.  That’s also nice to know. 

Quilters who made quilts honoring American’s Bicentennial were encouraged to have this on their labels, grouping this collection into a special class which can be studied together.

It may contain specific words which will place the quilt in a unique place and time in history.

When major events occur, quilters will often work through their fears and inner turmoil with needle and thread.  Even with today’s “connectiveness” through online groups and Facebook pages, quilters generally ply their craft in solitude.  It’s just them, their fabric, their machine, and their rotary cutters and mats.  And this may sound lonely, but it’s really not.  The act of cutting and sewing – keeping your hands busy with a familiar task – allows the mind to sort through what just happened. Often these events are reflected in quilts.  Take for instance, 9/11.

Quilters by the hundreds sewed their thoughts, prayers, desperation, and fears into quilts.  The labels attached reflected the date, which makes these quilts not only super-easy to date, but also historically places them in a singular group.

Quilts made during the COVID pandemic were somewhat of the same.

I did not make this quilt, but I think this is the best COVID-19 quilt made.

There are some quilts which reflect what was happening – staying at home, the virus, masks.  However, not all quilts made during the pandemic suggest any of this.  Many quilters, since they had some additional time on their hands, sewed up their UFOs.  Some (like myself) made quilts for folks we love.  Some of us started quilts we always wanted to make, but never had the time.  It’s important to recognize these quilts.  All of the quilts I made in 2020-2021 have one line on them which states they were made during the COVID-19 Pandemic. 

In the next 20 or so years, this will be important to quilt historians.

So….. if by now I’ve shamed encouraged you to put labels on your quilts, do you know what information should be on the label?  Here’s a quick run-down for you.

  1.  The date – It can be the day you started the quilt or finished it or both.  I generally go with the date I finished the quilt because the time between when I began the quilt and took the last stitch may be embarrassingly long. 
  2.  Your full name – First, middle, maiden, and last name.  A hundred years from now, this will make life so much easier for quilt historians.  They’ll be able to trace you with a great deal of accuracy.  And if the unthinkable happens and your quilt is misplaced, lost, or stolen, it will make returning the quilt to you a simple process.
  3. The name of your quilt.  Yes.  You should name your quilt.  Sometimes this is a quick process.  Other times, it takes a while.  But you can’t simply go around calling your quilts, “The Quilt,” because you probably have a lot of them.  It would get confusing.
  4. The location the quilt was made.  Again, this helps quilt historians trace the history of the quilt and the quilter.  And be sure to have the both the city and the state listed.  I live in Jamestown.  Did you know there are 30 Jamestown’s in the United States?  So, it’s important I always add “North Carolina” on my label.
  5. Reason for the quilt.  I admit, sometimes there is no reason.  You made someone a quilt just because you wanted to.  However, if it’s a birthday or anniversary or christening or baby shower, you may want to add that.  Honestly, this will mean more to the person receiving the quit than any quilt historian, but it’s a nice addition.
  6. Name of the quilter if it’s someone other than you.  This gives the person who actually quilted the quilt credit where credit is due.  On my labels, I have “Pieced and Appliqued by Sherri Lynn Moore Fields, Quilted by ______________.”  And if I did the entire shebang, the line reads “Pieced, Appliqued, and Quilted by Sherri Lynn Moore Fields.” 
  7. Any personal messages you deem appropriate.  This includes “With Love,”  “Your Mimi Loves You,” and the line I use on all the quilts I make for my family, “Love You to the Moon and Back a Thousand Times.”  My brother and I exchange horrible puns on nearly a daily basis.  The label on his quilt had a really bad one on it.

The last line on my quilt label includes some esoteric fact.  I got this idea from Tula Pink.  She includes one arcane item of interest on each of her labels.  It helps put the quilt in historical perspective.  This can be the average cost of a gallon of gas, a loaf of bread, or a leading news headline of the day.  It’s kind of fun, and I have been pleasantly surprised at how much the recipients of my quilts like this. 

You also may want to add another label to your quilt – one with care instructions.  When you gift a quilter a quilt, this isn’t needed.  But for those folks who don’t have a quilter in their life, this is really a good idea.  It should state how to wash and dry the quilt, what kind of detergent to use, and whether to use all fabric beach.  And if you wash all your quilts the same way, these labels can be made up in batches and tucked away until you need them. 

One thing this blog will not do is tell you how to make the label.  There are many different ways to make quilt labels, and honestly YouTube will be your best resource for this.  However, I will tell you how I make sure there’s a label on my quilts:  I make the label while I’m prepping my quilt.  When I cut out my fabric, I go ahead and make my label (and my binding) and add those to my project box.  I may opt to wait and ink in the date finished, but I have discovered if my label is already made and waiting on me to sew it on, it simply becomes the last step.  I pick it up and sew it on.

There is one more label issue to consider and this has to do with the quilt’s show status or if it will see the inside of a washer.  If the quilt is one which will be displayed a great deal (such as at quilt shows) or will be tumbled inside a washer and dryer a lot (such as a child’s play quilt, chemo quilt, or a baby quilt), you may want to sew the label to the quilt back before you quilt it.  The quilting stitches will keep the label secure. 

Finally, if you have family quilts in your possession and you’re certain about who made the quilt, go ahead and label those quilts.  You may not know all the details, but those you do — put it on the label.  And include your name and the date you put the label on. 

During the 1970’s and 1980’s, nearly every state had a quilt project.  This project was quite an undertaking.  Each state formed a committee of quilters.  This committee fanned out over the state and worked with local guilds to record quilt histories.  The call went out for families to bring their quilts to be photographed and documented and this information eventually became a book.  This was truly a labor of love and history and currently these pictures and the information are held at the International Quilt Museum and is accessible on their website.

The internet can truly be a wonderful thing.

However, many years have passed since then and more quilts have been made and found.  The Quilt Alliance is working to record quilt histories through this wonderful internet.  With your phone, take a video of your quilt and record the history behind it.  This recording can be three minutes or less, then upload it to the Quilt Alliance’s website history portal “Go Tell It!” They want to document as many quilts as they can regardless of when the quilt was made.  You don’t have to be in the video.

So…as you’re making your quilt yours, don’t be that Anonymous woman…be sure to put a label on it.  Future historians will thank you.

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

5 replies on “Should You Label Your Quilt?”

I have several quilts that I and others have made that aren’t labeled, but after reading your blog, I will be making labels and stitching them on. I want my kids to know that there great grandmother made this for me as a baby or that my friend, Maria who’s from Vienna , appliquéd this and brought it with her when she visited, or my first completely hand Sun Bonnet Sue and Overall Bill took Seven years to complete. Hopefully my memories will mean something to them and their children.

The history of our quilts is as important as any other part of history. I hope it will mean a great deal to your kids and grand kids and great grand kids. I know future quilt historians will love you for the labels.

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