Memorable Stitches, A Review of Nineteenth Century American Quilt Styles



American quilts have their origin in Europe and, not surprisingly, the quilt traditions of England greatly influenced her North American colonies.  Other early settlers contributed their quilt traditions also. To understand the general development of American quilts in the nineteenth century, a look at their English roots provides insights into popular American quilt designs.

The earliest quilts in England and the European continent were wholecloth quilts, made of one fabric.  Looms were not wide enough to weave fabric of sufficient width to cover a bed, so long lengths and, sometimes, smaller pieces were seamed together.  Fabric is subject to damage from use and from the environment.  As a result most of the textiles created before 1800 have not survived; however there are a few examples of quilts dating from the late 1300s, including one from Sicily. Recently an even older European quilt has been discovered.



Wholecloth quilts:


Many wholecloth quilts were made of solid colored fabrics.  The act of quilting holds the two layers of cloth and the middle batting layer together while creating designs in the fabric that can be geometric or figural.  These designs are shown to best advantage on a quilt of one solid color. Whole cloth quilts are a long-lasting trend in quilts with a few examples still being made by today’s quilters.


Traditionally England produced fabric for clothing and room furnishings using wool and linen produced on the island.  The introduction of silk from Asia into Europe created a luxury product used in personal fashion and for quilts, available only to the wealthy classes among the British.  These silk quilts, many imported from India, were wholecloth ones.



Whitework quilts, a type of wholecloth quilt:


France, particularly its city of Marseilles, was well known for its white wholecloth quilts, called broderie Marseilles.  These quilts, often called whitework today, were stuffed and corded to give emphasis to the quilting design, which often had a central focus.  They were exported in great numbers, particularly in the 1700s. Today this type of stuffed work is often called trapunto and is practiced by skilled quilters. The addition of a cord below the top layer of the quilt is rarely seen in modern quilts.


These elegant quilts were exported from Marseilles to many countries, including England and America.  American quilters produced whitework quilts, with stuffing and cording, in imitation of the French quilts.  These were particularly popular during the Federal period of furnishings in theUnited States and remained popular into the mid-nineteenth century.  White work quilts have become a favorite choice for wedding quilts and as such are made by the mothers of brides in the twenty-first century.


Ca. 1820. Whitework.  New England.

This quilt uses both stuffing and cording in its feathers to emphasize its design. 

The corners of the quilt have cut-outs to fit a 4 poster bed. 

Quilts with these cut-outs are nearly always associated with New England.






Palampore quilts, a type of wholecloth quilt.


A fad within wholecloth quilts are those that were made from printed palampores.  These are colorful cotton fabrics, painted by hand and stamped with wooden blocks, and were traditionally used in India for bedding.  When European merchants brought palampores from India to Europe in the 1600s, the fabric created a sensation.  Traditionally they have a central focus, often featuring a large tree with many different exotic flowers scattered among its branches.  These cloths, with their many bright colors and exoticism of design, were instantly in demand both in England and on the continent.  Their popularity quickly spread toAmerica. Those with the fanciful trees have become known as the Tree of Life design.


Ca. 2000. Palampore. Netherlands.

This reproduction palampore was made by hand in the Netherlands using wooden blocks and is a Tree of Life design. Its design is closely based on a palampore in the Royal Ontario Museum of Canada.






Quilters used the colorful floral cotton fabrics to create wholecloth quilts.  Soon quilters realized that they could extend the usefulness of this fabric by cutting out the floral motifs and applying them onto a plain fabric. This technique was particularly popular with American quilters in the late 1700s and the first third of the nineteenth century.  It may have been favored for the creativity it allowed the quiltmakers.  Originally, the flowered fabric was arranged in bands or visual borders radiating outward from the center of the quilt – a continuation of the central focus of the palampores and other quilted wholecloth quilts.  By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, quilts built from blocks had become popular and this appliqué of cut out chintz motifs was adapted to the block format.  Today this method of adorning the surface of a quilt with cut-out images is often called broderie perse, a name not used by the quilters of the past.




Chintz quilts:


Americans imported European chintz, a large scale furnishing print, often finished with a glaze.  This fabric featured colorful birds and fantastic flowers. Chintz made a bold statement when it was used as the only fabric in a quilt. It often formed not only a bed quilt but was used for the curtains that hung around the bed which helped keep the cold from the sleepers.  Later chintz fabric depicted realistic flowers.


Ca. 1840.  Wholecloth chintz. Pennsylvania.

Colors of fabric are in the then popular “drab style”.

Made by Elizabeth (Sassaman) Wolfinger (1770-1853) of Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

This quilt is unusual because Pennsylvania German quilters rarely made wholecloth quilts.









Chintz and other printed fabric were used as a border in quilts that featured pieced blocks.


 ca. 1840. Block style. New Jersey

Pieced quilt of blocks of stars (Ohio Star) with borders of a delicately printed fabric.

Made by Ann (Cadmus) Yereance (1818-1922) of Bergen County, New Jersey.


By the mid-19th century chintz was no longer fashionable and its occasional appearance was confined to one of many prints in a pieced quilt.




Pieced quilts: hexagons:


The industrialization of fabric production, first in England in the last part of the eighteenth century and later in the United States, contributed an increasing amount of yardage to quiltmakers, who quickly devised new quilt designs, which used more fabric that wholecloth quilts. The late 1700s saw the introduction of a new design aesthetic in quilts, with the use of small geometric pieces, pieced together, edge to edge.  The hexagon was one of first of these, along with the square and triangle.  Quilts using the hexagon were made in Europe, in such countries as England and the Netherlands.  Ever aware of European fashions, the upper classes in America were quick to copy them.  Quilts were no exception and the hexagon became very popular with American quilters. Early hexagon quilts used fabric colors in a random fashion; however, quilters soon learned to place fabric in position to create a visible design.


Ca. 1880. Honeycomb. American.

Central hexagon in each flower uses the same fabric, a chrome orange (cheddar).

Scrap quilt with many different fabrics, using a small shirting fabric for background.





The nineteenth century saw the development of an arrangement of hexagons that became known as Grandmother’s Flower Garden in the twentieth century.  In this arrangement, the hexagons are placed so as to resemble a flower, and paths of background hexagons separate the flowers from each other. In the twentieth century the petals in each round of hexagons in a flower match.  Hexagon quilts of the last part of the nineteenth century tend to have a scrappy look and may have larger hexagons.  While the use of the hexagon came and went among American quilters, the hexagon was a consistent favorite in England.




Medallion quilts:


The central focus favored early in the development of quilt aesthetics continued into the nineteenth century with the popularity of medallion quilts.  These quilts often included a center piece of favorite fabric surrounded with several borders, which could be made of simple rectangles, hexagons, or other shapes.  A pieced block was also used for the center although some featured an appliqué.  In the United States this method of organization for a quilt was displaced by another, the block; however its popularity lasted longer in England where it is known as a frame or framed quilt.


Ca. 1880s. Medallion. Pennsylvania.

Center green print block features an appliqué yellow leaf, surrounded by triangles, then a plain border with corner blocks, next are large triangles with stylized triangle birds, another plain border with corner blocks, then a border of squares, ending with a final plain, unpieced border.  When this example was made, the medallion style was no longer popular in the United States.  It may have been made by an older quilter, using a style popular in her earlier years.




Block quilts, stars:


One of the first images to appear in pieced quilts was the star, dating from the late 1700s.  In its many variations, the star is often considered to be the most popular image in American quilts.  Coinciding with the growing popularity of the star is the development and elaboration of pieced blocks by the American quilter.  It is in the development of this design structure that the quilters of the United States made a great and lasting contribution to the history and aesthetics of quilts. The Sawtooth Star (made of squares and triangles), sometimes called an Evening Star, is believed to be earliest form of star appearing in quilts.  The popular Lemoyne Star or 8-pointed star was probably developed soon afterwards.


Ca. 1840. Sawtooth Star, possibly from a Southern state.

Fabric from textile mills in New England with some European fabrics.

Central focus by arrangement of stars using fabrics in blue and in red in the center of the quilt.  These fabrics are the most expensive ones in the quilt with their clear bright prints, probably imported.


The Lemoyne Star and the designs based on it may be more popular than the Sawtooth Star.  Eight diamonds form the Lemoyne Star and this pattern can be expanded and repeated in many design forms and color arrangements that keep this star appearing fresh and twinkling.  It can be extended to form a very large single image on a quilt or appear multiple times, touching each other or separated by sashes.



Ca. 1875. Blazing Stars or Virginia Star, Pennsylvania.

This quilt with its precisely pieced stars was collected in Lancaster County and features the pink and green print fabrics popular among Pennsylvanian quilters.  The pleasing brown prints were made with dyes from the root of the madder plant.



Block quilts, Pinwheels and Whirligigs:


American quiltmakers developed thousands of quilt block patterns.  They shared designs with relatives and friends, even sending a drawing of a new block or a sample made up in fabric, to relatives who had moved away from their community.  One of the popular block patterns is the Pinwheel.  There are many different patterns called Pinwheel and its popularity stems from its sense of movement.  When quilters made their blocks from just two fabrics, they often chose blue and white or red and white.  The strong contrast between the colors creates a graphic image.  The more complex Pinwheel blocks are called Whirligigs.


Ca. 1880s. Pinwheel / Whirligig quilt. American.

Three of the pinwheels are rotating in an opposite direction from the rest. Borders were added to only the top and bottom of the quilt and differ from each other.



Appliqué quilts:


Appliqué quilts are distinguished by their method of construction in which one fabric is laid upon another instead of piecing the edges of the cloth shapes together as in pieced quilts. The use of cut-out pieces of chintz applied to a ground cloth is the first instance of the use of appliqué in England and America. The appliqué quilt required an additional skill with the needle and often a quiltmaker’s best quilts were her appliqué ones.  They usually were made with only a few different fabrics and represented an outlay of money to obtain the necessary materials.


Appliqué quilts, red and green:


A popular style from 1840 to1875 was the red and green appliqué quilt, often based on stylized flowers.  The popularity of this botanical style of quilt has been traced to the increasing interest of women in botany and in flower gardens.  Many of these quilts were made by women of German descent and some designs show a connection to German folk art.  Some makers had financial means to afford fashionable imported turkey red prints from England and France.  The brilliant red color was obtained by a many-step process of dying.  Europe and America imported turkey red fabric from the Middle East and hence the fabric color was called “turkey red.”  For many years the process was kept secret by Middle Eastern dyers.  Eventually dyers in Scotland were able to produce turkey red; however, it remained an expensive fabric.  Turkey red prints were imported into theUnited States through the mid-nineteenth century.  Other quilters used American made fabrics, including solid colors and less expensive prints in their red and green appliqué quilts.



Ca. 1840-1860. Rose Wreath. American

Reverse is stamped with name of Phebe A. Fritz, a German name.

One side of border lacks the appliqué vine, indicating that end of the quilt probably was placed against a wall.


Appliqué quilts, not red and green:


Many appliqué quilts were made with colors other than red and green.  Some only had two colors; others, more.  Often considered the quilter’s most elaborate creation, many were saved to be used only on guest beds and therefore, they were preserved to become family heirlooms.


Ca. 1875. Princess Feather quilt. Pennsylvania.

Blue appliqué on white background with a vine border.  Four large blocks feature one of the variations of the Princess Feather design, often called Prince of Wales Feathers.  Although in the past this design was attributed to England, recent research indicates that it was an American design, named for a plant known as Princess Feather or Prince of Wales Feathers.



Signature quilts:


Another popular quilt style of the mid-nineteenth century is the signature quilt.  These quilts were particularly popular during the 1840s and 1850s which coincided with the popularity of autograph albums.  Signature quilts were often made as a gift, particularly for special occasions such as a wedding.  They were made to support causes, such as abolition and temperance, and to comfort soldiers at war.  Sometimes signature quilts were made for a relative or respected member of the community (such as a minister) who was moving away, as far as the Mid West, the Pacific territories or even overseas.  Their greatest popularity corresponds to the decades of the country’s great westward movement.  A quilt that carried the names of relatives and friends whom the recipient might not see for many years, even decades, if at all, provided a tangible link to these relatives and friends.  Once the concept of signature quilts was developed, they were never totally forgotten and were made into the twentieth century and beyond.



Detail: ca. 1853-1854 Chimney Sweep. Wisconsin or New York.

29 signed blocks, one including a city and state but no dates, one block unsigned.

Names are members of the Kinney family of New York and Wisconsin.

Unusual, with only 11 different names and with the same names occurring multiple times (up to 9 times for one signer).


A few pieced blocks, such as the Chimney Sweep, Rolling Stone, Album Patch, Snowflake and Friendship Cross were particularly favored for these quilts in the nineteenth century.  The Rose Wreath was a favored appliqué block for them. The quilts usually had one name per block, occasionally using Mr. and Mrs. with only the husband’s forename given in front of the last name. Some of the quilts had the names of towns and even dates added.  Names were usually signed in ink, sometimes with a decorative cartouche or elaborate letters.  Some signers added a phrase of farewell or remembrance and even a scriptural verse. In some examples all the names were written by one person who had exceptionally good handwriting.  Occasionally an inked stamp with the person’s name would be used.


Detail: 1850s-1865. Snowflake.  New Hampshire or New York.

40 signed blocks, 1 unsigned block, no duplicate signatures.

17 blocks are in the Mr. and Mrs. style.

Names and towns are applied in ink with stamps.


Signature quilts were popular again in the 1890s.  These quilts were usually made with redwork designs and were particularly popular for church fundraisers.  Some quilts simply had signatures in a pleasing arrangement.  In contrast to the mid-century signature quilts these later quilts often display many signatures, even as many as several hundred.  An individual would pay a small fee, perhaps a nickel or a dime, to have their name added to the quilt.  Then the quilt would be auctioned to raise additional funds.  The twentieth century saw another wave of popularity of signature quilts, particularly from the 1930s into the 1950s.



Log cabin quilts:


The log cabin is a symbol of our country’s pioneer period and has remained a popular image.  Likewise the log cabin quilt has remained a popular style.  The log cabin quilt block made of strips of fabric (representing logs) pieced around a square (said by some to represent the hearth when the square is red) is a pattern that became popular during the Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.  It has two basic arrangements of light and dark fabrics; on opposing sides or on contiguous sides.  These blocks can be arranged in many designs which gave rise to quilt names such as Straight Furrows, Courthouse Steps, Light and Dark, Barn Raising, Windmill Blades, Pineapple, Chimneys and Corner Stones. The many different designs that are possible using the log cabin block have undoubtedly contributed greatly to its longevity among quilters.  Log cabin quilts were so popular that county fairs during the nineteenth century often had a separate entry for them within the category of quilts.


Ca. 1875.  Barn Raising Log Cabin. Pennsylvania.

Made with popular madder reds and browns, including a paisley and a stripe in the border. Many nineteenth century log cabin quilts do not have borders.



Crazy quilts:


Crazy quilts experienced their greatest popularity from about 1875 to the end of the century. Their popularity is often linked to interest in Japanese arts, particularly as exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.  Crazy quilts were made of silks, satins, ribbons and other fancy, expensive, fabrics.  Constructed of randomly-shaped pieces of fabrics, embroidered with a wide variety of subjects, even small paintings, and often incorporating commemorative ribbons, these quilts were considered show pieces and made to be displayed in the parlor, not for use on a bed. The seams of these quilts were covered with many different embroidery stitches, which along with the decoration of the patches, showcased the maker’s embroidery skills.  These quilts were also an indication of the family’s social status and of its financial means that gave the maker the leisure time to devote to the quilt’s creation.  Women with less financial means also made crazy quilt, using wools, cottons, denims, whatever fabric they had available to them. These more utilitarian crazies continued to be made after the fad for the silk ones had faded.


Quilters saved fancy fabric scraps, traded pieces with their friends and even cajoled their menfolk into donating their silk ties. They also could buy bundles of scraps of the appropriate fabrics which were advertised by textile companies in newspapers and magazines.  Selling these small otherwise unsaleable pieces provided extra income to the companies and greater fabric variety to the quiltmakers.  Like the log cabin quilts, the popularity of crazy quilts resulted in its own category among quilts in county fairs of the late nineteenth century.



1894. Crazy quilt block with painted flowers, embroidered fans and date. Ohio.

One of several crazy quilt blocks given in exchange to a doctor who provided medical services to a quiltmaker or member of her family.



Quilts of many small pieces:


At the end of the nineteenth century, there was a fad for making quilts with thousands of small pieces. These quilts could be made of squares, hexagons or triangles.  If each shape was made of a different fabric, the quilt was known as a charm quilt.  During the nineteenth century, these quilts were often pieced randomly with no intent to produce a discernable design as quilters in the twentieth century often did.


Ca. 1880. Thousand Triangles. Pennsylvania.

Fabrics include madder browns and madder reds popular in the 1860s and 1870s with accents of brighter red and black as well as an occasional green. 


Close up of the size of the many small triangles.


Made by Louisa (Miller) Corwin (1852-1937) with more than 6200 small triangles. Louisa Corwin lived in Millerton, Tioga County, Pennsylvania.



The nineteenth century saw the flourishing of quilt making in the United States and the development of many favorite quilt styles that continued or were reborn in the twentieth century.  The American quilter was quick to take advantage of the prevalence of cotton textiles manufactured in New England’s mills to expand upon the many varied styles and designs that were developed during the nineteenth century.  Additionally the nineteenth century was characterized by the spread of quilting to all levels of society, aided by the development of the American textile industry, which produced tremendous quantities of fabric at an increasingly cheaper cost.  The desire to create something both practical and beautiful was met by the American quiltmaker in creating outstanding quilts that are treasured today.


About Carol Gebel

Carol did not grow up sleeping under quilts.  The first quilt she remembers was made for her by her father’s mother when she was 15.  She made quilts and lived in New York; Carol lived in California and they rarely saw each other.  About 15 years later this grandmother sent her a quilt her mother had made in approximately 1875.  It was made of thousands of tiny triangles and had wonderful fabrics that she had never seen before.  That quilt started Carol’s love for antique fabrics and quilts made from them.


Carol’s University degrees in anthropology and librarianship shaped her interest in quilts as reflections of women’s lives as well as spurring her into researching quilts and quiltmakers.  She began by collecting quilts, found at antique shops and in the hands of quilt dealers across the country over the past 35 years.  Her interests recently have focused on quilts made before 1880 as well as signature quilts.  Carol’s pursuit of family genealogy has branched off into the search for information of the lives of the makers of quilts that she owns and loves.

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