Saturday, January 16, 2021

Textile Archaeology: Exploring a Vintage Quilt Through Dissection and Repair

 Yesterday morning, while drinking my latte, I read through a string of National Geographic articles about recently discovered hominid remains in the Rising Star cave system of South Africa.  On my giant desktop monitor, I clicked through slide shows of exploration scientists cramming themselves and their equipment into narrow channels of rock as they gingerly worked to free fragile, ancient fossils that would shed new light on our understanding of early human history.

Client's Vintage Summer Quilt, Prior to Repair

And then, I headed up to my studio, and began a delicate excavation of my own, the beginning of a vintage quilt repair that I'm undertaking on behalf of a client.  Although I've never thought about it this way before, I'm sure that a big part of what attracts me to these fraught and often tedious vintage quilt projects is the opportunity they afford for a bit of textile archaeology.  And yes -- that's actually a thing!  

"As fiber folk, we all know the feeling. You look at a handmade textile and you see not just a pretty object, but the hours at the loom or knitting needles, the fiber drafting at the wheel, the alchemy at the dye pot, even the shepherds with their flocks. You can see all the steps and decisions that went into creating that object, all the places where one path or another was chosen. Archaeologists are constantly trying to trace back those paths, to see those moments when a decision had to be made and why. The whys are how we learn about culture in the distant past."


         -- Christina Pappas, Textile Archaeologist 

So, back to my client's quilt.  My client is a young mother who brought her toddler along when she dropped off this quilt.  The quilt was given to her husband by his grandmother when he was a child and, although it has tremendous sentimental value to the family, it does not meet any of the criteria that would make it valuable or historically significant.   (If someone does bring me a quilt that may be too valuable to alter, I refer them to a certified quilt appraiser and then we discuss whether they still wish to have any repairs done and how to do it without negatively impacting the quilt's value).  But the bulk of my vintage quilt repairs involve simple quilts like this one that have been loved to the brink of death.

In its original form, the quilt is a 7 x 8 layout of scrappy pinwheel-in-a-square blocks alternating with plain alternate blocks in a blue stripe.  All of the pinwheel-in-a-square blocks have the same red and white stripe on the corner triangles.  I call it a "summer quilt" because there is no batting, and there is no quilting, either -- the pieced top is attached to the backing with knotted ties of a thick white thread.  In lieu of binding, the backing fabric is wrapped around to the front of the quilt, folded under, and stitched down for a finished width of 1/2".

The client's goal for this repair is to salvage the tattered quilt sufficiently that it can be handed down to their daughter for story time snuggling.  I warned the client that all of the fabrics in the quilt are fragile with age and use, so even after repairs improve its appearance, it is not going to be able to withstand heavy use.  She is okay with that, so I agreed to proceed with reconstruction.  I will be reducing the size of the quilt to a 5 x 5 block layout that will result in a finished size of approximately 45" x 45", containing the blocks that are in the best condition.  In the section of the quilt that will be saved, there are four badly deteriorated blocks that I will be replacing with "good blocks" from the portion of the quilt that is being removed.  The removed portion of the quilt will also be the source of any patches needed for repairs, so that all of the fabrics in the quilt will remain original.  And of course, every scrap of fabric removed from the quilt will be saved and returned to the client along with the quilt.

Taking a seam ripper or a rotary cutter to someone else's cherished family quilt is always a bit nerve-wracking.  I feel the weight of the client's trust, knowing that I am altering the quilt in ways that cannot be undone, in order to give it new life for the next generation.  It's like I'm amputating a diseased limb that is too far gone to save.  However, this is the stage of the process where the discoveries are made as well.  

This Top Was Hand Pieced, But in a Heavy-Weight Thread

I was surprised to discover that this quilt top was entirely hand pieced in neat, even stitches, but with a heavy-weight thread.  It's comparable to 12 weight Aurifil or a perle cotton embroidery thread, and may be the same thread that was used to tie the quilt layers together.  Yet the self-binding of the quilt was stitched by machine, with a stitch length so tiny that I could barely get my seam ripper in there to release the seam.

Half Inch Self Binding Was Stitched By Machine

This, to me, is an interesting paradox, as many quilters today will happily piece their tops and even quilt them with their sewing machines, yet feel strongly that hand stitched applied binding is the only acceptable way to finish the edges of a quilt.  The hand piecers I know today would never dream of finishing their quilts with a machine stitched binding.  This is a reminder that the tyranny of the so-called Quilt Police is a modern phenomenon.  Quilters of the past were more likely to combine hand and machine work and to use whatever thread happened to be in their sewing basket, whereas today's quilters fret more about using the "right" threads and the "right" methods, as dictated by those deemed to be experts.

Another discovery I make in the "dissection" phase is the lost vibrancy of the faded quilt fabrics, hidden and protected from UV light within the safety of the seam allowances:

A Fabric That Appears to be Plain Muslin Was Once a Vibrant Purple Print

The pinwheel blocks that appear to have plain white muslin triangles were once a vibrant purple print!  The white flower silhouettes on the black print fabric are what was left behind when the brightly-colored flowers faded away, and the red and white stripe used to be a much more vivid red.

I do not take a scissors to a vintage quilt top and cut into any of the blocks I'm removing, so it took me a little over an hour to free the section of the quilt top that I'm saving from the rest of the quilt.   I used my seam ripper to carefully open the hand pieced seams between the blocks, and then used my rotary cutter and ruler to trim the backing fabric about an inch beyond the edges of the blocks so I can replicate the self-binding on the two new edges of the quilt.  Today's task will be to remove four good blocks from the damaged portion of the quilt that was removed and transfer them like a skin graft to replace blocks that are too far gone to save.

I'm linking up today's post with the following linky parties:


Frédérique at Quilting Patchwork Appliqué

Oh Scrap! at Quilting Is More Fun Than Housework

Slow Stitching Sunday at Kathy's Quilts


Design Wall Monday at Small Quilts and Doll Quilts  

Monday Making at Love Laugh Quilt

BOMs Away at What a Hoot Quilts


Karen - Quilts...etc. said...

that is an interesting quilt in the heavy thread for hand stitching and I didn't see any back stitching on it to strengthen the line of stitching. Whenever I have hand pieced and looked for instruction it always says to do a back stitch every so often. I have repaired a couple old quilts and don't really care to do it again(other than my own lol)
Is that a new hair style/photo I see on the top of the blog - looks good!!

Anonymous said...

What a fabulous project! I hope you will share every step along the way because this process really is interesting to me, and I am sure it will be interest to others who follow your blog as well..... this is a task that so many would feel wasted time to try to save a quilt in such fragile thought is that is is very much worth the effort and will such a treasure to the child who will have such a great connection to those who went before. Thank you for taking on this task!!
Sandra B

Nancy @ Grace and Peace Quilting said...

Interesting quilt story, so far. Neat that the story will continue, thanks to your efforts.
And yes, new bio photo! Great!

WAZOO! Quilting said...

I finally found a kindred spirit. Although I am way older than you are, I also longarm quilt, do commissions and repair quilts. I connect with you own every level of your deconstruction and repair. Some of the quilts I have done were almost beyond the point of no return. Stop over to my blog and see some of my work sometime.
Keep up the good work! I always think of the original maker looking over my shoulder and being happy someone cared enough to fix her quilt. I truly love my job!

piecefulwendy said...

I agree with the others, this is interesting to read. I have some vintage blocks that I found in an antique store, and they are stitched with what looks very similar to the thread in your photo. I'm sure they are hand-pieced, but I don't know whether I should de-construct them and re-construct them, or work with them as is. They are pretty wonky. said...

Bless your client who values that quilt so much to have it "reconstructed" with the salvageable sections to extend its life. That maker would be so happy to see how much her quilt has been loved!

Frédérique - Quilting Patchwork Appliqué said...

Very interesting post, me too I agree with the others ;) It's like magic to discover how were the fabrics a long time ago (how light can fade colors!), all the handwork made on this quilt, and the machine work too!
Love your new profile photo too ;))

Frédérique - Quilting Patchwork Appliqué said...

Zut j'ai encore oublié d'écrire en français !
Article très intéressant comme les autres l'ont déjà dit. C'est passionnant de voir apparaître les couleurs d'origine des tissus, décolorés par le temps et la lumière. Et aussi le travail manuel fait sur ce quilt, et le travail à la machine aussi ! Surprenant, en effet.
Cela dit, moi aussi j'aime beaucoup ta nouvelle photo de profil !
Désolée, ce n'est pas une traduction fidèle de ce que j'ai dit dans le commentaire précédent, je ne me souviens plus exactement ce que j'ai écrit, mais l'idée générale y est !

Carole @ From My Carolina Home said...

I follow much the same plan as you are doing when I repair well-loved quilts. It is interesting to uncover vibrant color in the seams.

Kate said...

It's nice that someone loved the quilt enough to have it repaired. Those vintage fabrics are so lovely, but probably really fragile to work with. Definitely a labor of love and caring to repair.

SJSM said...

Yes, sir! That is going to be a labor of love. It is heartening to see the quilt being a family heirloom that will go another generation.

Sylvia@Treadlestitches said...

What a nice blog post! Thank you for showing us your work with this vintage quilt. I have done some similar repairs on antique quilts I own, and it's fascinating to see what choices the original quilter made and what materials s/he had to work with.

LIttle Penguin Quilts said...

It's fascinating to see what you're discovering as you deconstruct the quilt! Your patience with that kind of project is amazing, and I bet your client will be really appreciative of the work you do.

Quilter Kathy said...

That was very interesting to hear the story of this reconstruction.
You are brave... I think I'd be shaking in my boots to disassemble someone's treasured quilt!
Good luck and thanks for sharing!

Karrin Hurd said...

What a work in patience deconstructing that quilt! Happy stitching, and unstitching!

Linda @ kokaquilts said...

A wonderful post, loved reading all about your plans for this special vintage quilt.

CathieJ said...

I love that purple was used in that quilt. How sad that it has faded away, but how wonderful that you are saving it.

Bonnie said...

Who would have guessed those flowers had been purple. I've done a little repair work -- it hurts to cut off pieces but sometimes that is all you can do to get to a usable quilt. Hope the restoration goes well.

Cathy said...

Very interesting. It's wonderful that the family cherishes the quilt enough to keep it around and have it repaired so it can actually still be used. You are brave to tackle such a project!

Anorina @SameliasMum said...

You are a very patient woman to undertake this type of task. Happy stitching.

Lynette said...

What a fascinating, if meticulous, job to get to work on!! I can't believe purple faded all the way to white. That's pretty crazy! You're a good person for this job - your attention to detail and care for craftsmanship will yield a nice result. Looking forward to seeing it!

On my end, I've finished hyper-cleaning all the cabinets and shelves I would have purposefully stashed that little baggie of pre-fused applique pieces. I'm sure, like your situation, it was accidentally bunched with something else, quilting or household - who knows? I'll probably find it in 5 years. lolol!! Meantime, I've gathered all the scraps from the other blocks, which are tiny. Found a couple of the fabrics online still and ordered the ones I could for the large pieces of this last block. I just finished re-drafting a pattern, and will get all the smaller pieces from the scraps. I will get a laugh every time I pull this quilt out for seasonal display!

Vivian said...

What a thrill: I read about a DWR rescue quilt operation on Carole's "From My Carolina Home" blog this morning and then read another on yours this afternoon! Yours is definitely the tougher one to tackle but having seen you do these before, I know it'll be a successful reclamation project. Saw your follow-up post on the feed sack bag thread (make do, wear it out....) and had to check out the details on the "patient". I too look forward to seeing how this one goes!