|“Civil War Era” Quilt Holds Mysteries
Patricia L. Cummings
If only quilts could speak to us, what a tale they could tell! When I spotted a tag on a quilt in an
antiques mall that said “Civil War Era quilt,” I was hooked at first glance. Immediately, I loved
its colors as well as its somewhat organized scrappy look. No further information is available
about the quilter or the circumstances under which this 19th century quilt was made. Certainly,
the fabric prints suggest the possibility of a Civil War time frame but without verifiable
information, we shall never know all the details we seek. At any rate, by 1870, the patchwork
look had run its course in popularity paving the way for the ornate Crazy Quilts and Redwork
quilts of the next decades.
Quilt Features: Clues or Coincidences?
The more I examined this quilt, the more my mind went wild with possibilities. The backing of
the bed-size quilt is slit diagonally for about 22” and the cotton batting has been removed in that
area along with the short ties that once held all three layers of the quilt together. To me, it
appears that someone could have been looking for treasure inside the quilt. During the American
Civil War, money and other “treasures” such as silverware or jewelry were hidden inside
Confederate quilts to keep them from the marauding eyes of Union soldiers who often scooped
up anything of apparent value to take with them. I wonder if this quilt originated in one of the
southern states. Perhaps, at a much later date, someone decided to investigate to see what might
be found inside! This is one mystery we shall never unravel!
The Importance of a “Scrap Bag”
Due to an embargo that restricted trade between the north and south during the Civil War, the
south suffered from a shortage of cotton fabrics. This is one reason that many of the extant
southern Civil War quilts are either silk or made from scraps. Women would cut up their dresses,
just as they did in the north, to recycle fabrics due to their scarcity.
Pieces of Pieces!
In the quilt shown here, pieces of the quilt are they themselves pieced, as are the borders,
suggesting that the quilter worked from a scrap bag of recycled cloth to create strips, triangles
and squares. In spite of the wonky piecing, the quilter managed to make a finished quilt that is
nearly square: 82 3/8” x 83 5/8”. The borders of this quilt are variable in size (3 ¾” on the sides
and 2 7/8” at top and bottom). In this “well-loved” quilt, the clue that the quilt looked like this
originally and does not have repaired borders is the fact that there is a “knife edge” finish all the
Color Planning Shows Genius
Overall, the placement of colors in this old quilt is aesthetically-pleasing. The double pink squares
and triangles juxtapose well with the rich brown fabrics and indigo color squares and triangle.
The quilter employs many neutral fabrics like light brown, gray, beige and tan and adds some
strong geometric prints. The quilter seems to have put a lot of thought into just how she would
arrange the fabrics she had at hand. The overall effect is balanced, a lot of work for “just” a
Just Three Blocks
The quilt consists of three different geometric block configurations. There are (24) traditional
Nine Patch blocks which are placed adjacent to (24) additional blocks in which the corner
squares of a Nine Patch block have been replaced with half-square triangle units in light and dark
colors. The (1) center block is a solo affair that has strips (unlike the others) and requires more
intricate piecing of the side triangles, all of which have four interior triangles. All of the blocks
measure 10.5” square as a finished size.
Why Purchase Old Quilts?
What possessed me to purchase a quilt I shall never use? The reason is fairly simple to those of
us who love old textiles. They have a certain allure and a kind of mystery. They are fun to
“dissect” and study to see just how the quilter put them together, what types of fabrics she used
and in the case of scrap quilts, how she worked magic from the limited materials that were
accessible at the moment. This quilt, though very photogenic, now appears to be quite faded
possibly from laundering or exposure to ultra-violet rays of the sun.
Old quilts are a joy! We can imagine our own grandmothers, making do and passing their days
by crafting warm bed covers for their family. I offer the details and photo of the quilt here, just
in case you are inspired to make a similar quilt. If you do, please do the next generations a favor.
Make a tag for the back of the quilt that indicates who you are, the date you made the quilt and
where you were located at the time. Future quilt historians will thank you! Of course, if this
article does result in a new quilt you make, photos are always welcome! Happy Quilting!
Civil War Era Quilt (collection of Patricia Cummings. Photo by James Cummings
I love "scrappy" quilts and this one is a gem with its rich madder colors and brown hues.
2014. Patricia L. Cummings, Quilter's Muse Publications, Concord, NH . All Rights Reserved. Scrap Quilt Favorites, the
magazine in which this article appeared in print, offered directions for the two blocks that make up this design.