Separating Traditional and Imported QuiltsBy

Separating Traditional and Imported Quilts

Quiltmaking in America has traditionally been an individual craft or the work of a small group. The limited number of quilts produced this way were primarily for personal and family use. But today, copies of American quilts are being mass produced by hand in low-wage countries such as China, India and Haiti. Sold in catalogs, department stores and discount chains, new quilts are now drifting into the collector's market and being sold as old. This article will discuss some of the differences between quality traditional work and the imports.

First we need to go over some quilt basics. All quilts are made of three layers: 1) the top is the side of the quilt which has the pattern; 2) the batting is the filling in the middle; and 3), the back, is usually a one-colored single piece of fabric. Quilting is the decorative stitching used to join all three layers together and keep the batting from moving (see Fig. 13). Patterns in quilt tops are usually formed in blocks but some patterns may also be an allover design made without blocks. Stitching tension refers to how tightly the thread is pulled between stitches.

When examining quilts, begin with the fabric. Generally, the thread count in reproduction fabrics is less than original fabrics and the weave of new fabrics is looser (Fig. 11). Original fabrics available to early quiltmakers included cotton, wool, silk, linen, satin and chintz. Synthetic fabrics such as polyester and synthetics blended with natural fibers came on the market during the 1950s.

The type of batting used is also a clue to the age of a piece. Prior to the 1950s, most batting was made of cotton, wool, flannel, or from old quilts and sheet blankets. Although cotton batting is still available today and used for traditionally made quilts, most, but not all, mass produced quilts have a polyester batting.

There are several ways to determine what type of batting is used. Polyester batting has a higher loft than cotton, so quilts with cotton batting usually look flatter than quilts with polyester batting. Polyester is also bonded which means its fibers don't separate very easily. This means the lines of quilting which hold polyester batting in place can be fairly wide, sometimes as much as 3-4" apart. Cotton, on the other hand, tends to shift and bunch up between the layers and requires much closer quilting. The close quilting and low loft are what give older quilts their typically flat look.

Another test you can use is to simply feel the batting with your fingers or hold the quilt up to a light. Some older quilts still have cotton seeds or pieces of stems or bolls that were not removed during the cotton ginning process. These will feel like tiny hard spots to your fingers or show up as dark shadows when held to the light.

Fiber content of the thread used in a quilt can also be a clue to its age. Threads in older quilts are made from natural materials like cotton, wool and silk. Since the 1950s, most threads are synthetics like polyester or cotton wrapped polyester. Most all synthetic threads fluoresce a bright white under black light.

While many old quilts are completely done by hand, some quiltmakers used the sewing machine for various steps. Piecing or appliqueing the top, joining the blocks with sashing strips, adding borders or quilting itself are all made easier with the sewing machine. It is important to remember that the sewing machine was invented in 1856 and could have been used any time since by a proud new owner to make a quilt. Typical sewing machine stitches can be recognized by their even spacing and consistent tension (Fig. 1).

Traditional hand stitching, whether for a pieced pattern or an applique pattern, is generally small, even and has a consistent tension (Fig. 3). By contrast, most of the hand sewn imported quilts have stitches about 1/4" apart, vary in size and spacing and have an inconsistent tension (Fig. 2). Generally, an average of between 8-10 stitches per inch is considered to be good quilting. Knots and thread ends should not be visible on either the front or the back of the quilt. Quilting on the imported quilts average about 3-5 stitches per inch.

Edge finishing is the final step in completing a quilt and there are several methods. The traditional way is to apply a binding to the edges, (Fig. 7) which not only finished the quilt edge but served to protect it from wear. The other method is to simply turn the edges of the top and bottom into the center and stitch them closed (Fig.6). This method is used on the majority of the imported quilts as a time saving technique.

Perhaps one of the simplest tests for age, (but not necessarily quality) is to use a black light in your examination. Laundry detergents used since about 1950, contain brightening agents which fluoresce a bright white. Any fabric that fluoreseces has been washed in a modern detergent. Synthetic fabrics also tend to fluoresce. Black light will also highlight repairs to old quilts. Even if old fabric is used for a repair, the dyes and weave will react differently under black light than the original material.

This article has given a broad overview of some of the differences between new and antique quilts, between good quilts and those of lesser quality. You cannot make a flat statement that all quilts made in America are good and of better quality than quilts imported from abroad--there are always exceptions. It's hoped this article helped you become more aware of the characteristics you should judge when examining any quilt.

Marie Salazar is past president of The National Quilting Association, Inc. and is involved with quilt collecting and quiltmaking activities nationwide.

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Fig. 1 Machine stitching

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Fig. 2 Imported hand stitching

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Fig. 3 Traditional hand stitching

Figs. 1-3 Images shown about twice actual size. Fig. 1–Machine stitching, no gaps, consistent tension. Fig. 2–Quilting on imported quilt: length of individual stitch varies, 3- 5 stitches per inch, irregular line, inconsistent tension. Fig. 3–Traditional American hand quilting, length of each stitch nearly equal, 8-10 stitches per inch, consistent tension.

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Fig. 4

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Fig. 5

Figs. 4-5 Many fine details on traditional American quilts are made with very small pieces of fabric like the vine in Fig. 5. Similar small details in the new quilts are made by zigzag or other bulk stitching, not fabric.

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Fig. 6

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Fig. 7

Figs. 6-7 The majority of new quilt tops and bottoms are simply sewn together along the edges with no binding. Although some vintage quilts don't have bindings, bindings are generally a sign of better quality vintage construction. A traditional binding, Fig. 7, overlaps both top and bottom and prevents wear to the edges.

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Figs. 8-9 In 1991, the Smithsonian Institution signed a contract with an American distributor to reproduce 12 quilts from the Institution's collection. Fig. 8, left, was one of the first year's quilts. It is appliqued with 100% cotton fabric and 100% cotton batting. Fig. 9, right, is a close up of poetic verse appearing on the quilt. The new quilts come in a variety of sizes. All quilts in the Smithsonian series were hand sewn in China.

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Fig. 10 Another new imported quilt from the Smithsonian series. It has hand stitched applique and quilting with embroidered details.

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Fig. 11 Fabrics in most new quilts typically have a much looser weave than fabrics in most vintage quilts. A typical new fabric is on the left above; a typical old fabric is shown on the right.

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Fig. 12 New quilts are made in traditional patterns, so patterns alone are not a reliable test of age.

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Fig. 13 Six common quilting patterns: Top L-R Diagonal Line, Hanging Diamond, Square Diamond. Bottom L-R Plaid, Broken Plaid, Shell. New quilts, like old, use a variety of quilting patterns.