|Hidden Messages of a 1930s / 1940s Era Quilt
by Patricia Cummings
Doll bed quilt made by Patricia Cummings from salvaged pieces of fabric from a vintage bed quilt
On a summer day, a few years ago, we stopped at an old barn where a huge flea market was set up. After looking at table
after table of small glassware, trinkets, and other discards of the past, I was convinced that we would not find any old
textiles. Suddenly, my husband approached and asked if I had checked out an old quilt in the back. As it turned out, there
were two items of interest, a finished quilt and a 1930s strippy-style quilt top.
Sure I wanted them! I "grabbed them up" and brought them to the check out counter. The two bemused ladies who were in
charge of collecting the money were completely intrigued as to why anyone would want those “old things.” They were
considering the condition of one quilt in particular. With all those blood stains, why would anyone care to buy it? What would
anyone do with it? Surely, no one would use it on a bed.
Price Was Right
The answer to those questions did not come clear, even to me, until much later. At just fifteen dollars, the price had been
right! Apparently, I could see the “possibilities.” As with every quilt of the scrap bag variety, there is a wealth of textile
information worth preserving. If the quilt is antique, the fabrics are no longer made. Similar reproduction fabrics might be
available, but let’s face it, they are not the real McCoy!
I knew that I would want to wash the quilt. That idea was a given. Not wanting to cause further distress to the fibers of the
top layer, I decided to disassemble the quilt layers before washing. I was thankful that this comforter had been tied, which
made this process of disassembly very easy. After removing all the deep colored pink embroidery floss ties, I started to unpick
all of the stitches of the edge binding that had been formed by turning back to front. Quilters jokingly call this process
Word Messages on Fabric
To my total amazement, under one of the edges, the word, "Hello” was written in what at first appeared to be handwritten
cursive script. For a flashing moment, I had the strange feeling that the quilt maker was speaking to me from the grave, and
that she knew exactly what I was doing to her quilt!
Upon looking at some of the other squares, I could see other "word” messages and quickly realized that these were actually
part of a printed fabric. that included other words like "Bon Voyage.” Somehow, seeing the words made me feel connected to
the quilt maker. Suddenly, it was not an anonymous textile with blood stains. Rather, it was an artifact from a real person, just
like me, someone who had lived, who had loved, and who had said the words, “Hello, Goodbye, I love you, and Bon Voyage!”
Determined to save the quilt in a way that it could be enjoyed by others, my plan was to take apart all of the squares, cut them
to consistent sizes and then, reassemble the piece. First, I washed the top and the backing, in intact pieces, using a safe textile
soap (Orvus) that completely washes out.
One tablespoon of Orvus dissolved in a bathtub of water is plenty because of that soap’s sudsing action. Most often, I avoid
wet washing of old textiles. There is always the possibility that unstable dyes will run and there are compelling reasons to use
other conservation cleaning methods.
In this instance, I wanted to feel as though the quilt was somewhat decontaminated from harmful spores. In detaching the
squares from each other, those fabrics that were stained badly were discarded. There were enough repeats of the same
fabrics so I was not compromising any fabric study of the quilt by keeping only the squares in good condition.
Washing Quilt: An Improvement
After washing them, the old fabrics felt very soft to the touch. This quilt had served a strictly utilitarian purpose in its lifetime,
a time far removed from the Art Quilt fad of today’s modern world. In its role, the quilt had seen much washing which was
evident by the amount of surface fading present. One can view the much brighter, former hues of the fabrics, deep within the
Blanket as Filler
The small square culled blocks of fabric were trimmed so that the former ragged uneven edges and holes left from tying and
from sewing them together were removed to make the units easier to reassemble into their new form: a doll bed quilt. The
format of square blocks was maintained in the much smaller version of the original twin size quilt. The tattered dye-stained
blanket that had been used as a make-shift batting by the original quiltmaker was not worth saving.
A stylized rooster, one of the delightful "conversational prints" in the Depression Era quilt
Fabrics a Delight
The typical array of cheerful pastel colors of the 1930s marched across the quilt in a delightful mix of prints. There are red
and white polka dots, green ginghams with an overlay rickrack design, small and medium scale floral designs, geometric prints
with squares, and many other charming printed fabrics. Most of these designs I had never seen before. Indeed, some fabrics
look like pieces of recycled feedsack bags that are sometimes referred to as “chicken linen.” This would not be unlikely, since
the quilt was collected in a New Hampshire farming community.
Conversational Prints a Favorite
The conversational prints are my favorites such as an old couple sitting on a park bench, as seen from behind; a highly
stylized art deco type butterfly; and an anchor with a little sailor man, reminiscent of cartoon figures of that era. A birdcage,
an object so popular in Victorian times, and a rooster, depicted by simulated artist's brush strokes, add charm to the quilt’s
Art Deco Butterfly in green and turquoise
Every quilt has a story to tell. As we look at quilted “pieces of the past,” we can only surmise the maker's intentions. In this
case, most likely the quilt was not planned to be a work of art, yet it was artistic in its own way. The quilter would never have
imagined that her comforter would still be in existence sixty or more years after she had created it. One wonders for whom it
was made or used and also, why the quilter used that haunting fabric with word messages. We can only hope that the quilt
provided comfort for someone who was very ill.
Doll bed quilt constructed by Patricia Cummings to save fabric patches from the old quilt she disassembled
Miniature Quilt Made to Save Fabrics
Chances are that the miniature quilt made from scraps of the former bed quilt have a chance at longevity, as something to be
saved rather than ridiculed. As we study the variety of prints, the new quilt still shares many messages about the quiltmaker’s
choice of fabrics and gives us a window into the types of cotton fabrics that were available to her. Moreover, the quilt speaks
to us of hard times when folks simply had to "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”
One cannot help but be intrigued with old quilts. We have questions and we wonder about their provenance, but for quilts
collected “out of context," without even the name of the quiltmaker, it is unlikely that clear answers will ever come. The
compelling “words” which appear on the surface of the quilt, including “Hello” and “Bon Voyage” were shocking to discover.
However, the most compelling unseen message of this quilt is the same one that is inherent in every quilt:
"I lived, I loved, and please, please “remember me.”
©Copyright 2002. Patricia L. Cummings and James Cummings, Quilter's Muse Publications, Concord, NH. Write to:
email@example.com for more information.