Tuesday, January 31, 2017


Pulelehua is the Hawaiian word for butterfly or moth. It connotes fluttering frivolously without stability, a social butterfly. Pulelehua has a secondary meaning: blowing through the air as a leaf on a windy day.

This 1970s pulelehua quilt came from a vintage shop in Kailua. It is 67" x 86" and made of cottons and synthetics. The cottons are solids, blue, orange and white; and the synthetics used for the butterflies are tropical floral print fabrics with some tectured polyester double knit and rick rack.

The antennae look like they were painted or drawn with magic marker, now faded to gray.

It is backed with flannel and has no batting, but is quilted in a large grid with blue and orange thread. Binding is brought from front to back and machine stitched.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Outer Space Quilt Pictures

Happy Monday! The outer space quilt from Wolfeboro, New Hampshire is here, and I thought it would be fun to share some photos. Click here to read more about the quilt. Enjoy the photos!

one of a kind, made by elementary school kids in New Hampshire

Sunday, January 29, 2017

"A bird in the hand..."

"A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."

This charming quilted wallhanging came from a vintage shop in Kailua, Hawaii. It could've been made yesterday, but there are signs of minor fading. I would say it was made in the last 10 or 20 years

The irregularly shaped quilt is approximately 20" x 26" and includes two birds roosting in a flowering tree or shrub. It is hand appliqued and hand quilted, with fun little details such as embroidered birds' eyes and miniature prairie point beaks.

Echo quilting, a design element found in traditional Hawaiian applique quilts, covers the green background fabric. The quilting in the applique is less dense, and decoratively delineates shape and contour.

There is a stitched inscription on the base of the trunk, but it is unclear. It looks like 0 5.6. Maybe it's a date. Maybe it's something else. Hard to know.

The backing fabric is a floral print, reminiscent of a 1970s calico but newer. It could be faded from washing, but also could have started out with the distressed, mottled tone. A sleeve for hanging is made of the same material and hand stitched on to the back. 

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Alternative Facts: Scraps in Quilts (part 2)

detail of Achsah Goodwin Wilkins applique counterpane
from Colonial Williamsburg
The origins of quiltmaking in the United States were remarkably less humble than you might think. Colonists brought European traditions, and the families producing the elegant, decorative objects were the ones with the money for materials and the time to create.

scrappy nine-patch quilt top, c. 1830, New York
Alternative facts might suggest otherwise, but the familiar, scrappy style associated with American quiltmaking tradition was not an early form. It took time to develop, and the function of quilts took time to evolve. Once there was a source of scraps there were scrap quilts. They typically appeared after the rise of the textile and garment industries. But before there could be a tradition of scrap quilts in America, many mills would open, domestic fabrics would replace costly imports, and garment making would flourish.
velvet crazy quilt, c. 1900, New York
Along with scrap quilts came improvisational style, a topic I wrote about in the 2016 edition of QuiltCon Magazine. Since then, I have connected a few more dots. The success of Gee's Bend over the last 15 years triggered a lot of unvetted ideas. Improvisational style in quilts was hastily attributed to African design, and suddenly anonymous quilts were designated as African-American because of their style. The most compelling alternative facts skillfully blend fact and fiction.

Bible Story, Lucy Mingo, 1979, Gee's Bend, Alabama
The thing is, improvisational quiltmaking style as we know it evolved from an elegant branch of quiltmaking tradition-- crazy quilts. The design influence came from Japan -- not Africa -- and it was strongly impacted by British preferences.
wool crazy quilt, c. 1900, United States
The Japanese and British decorative arts displays at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 first sparked an interest in asymmetrical design. Crazy quilts then emerged as a distinct style of patchwork, notably predating Cubism in painting by a quarter century. 

cotton crazy quilt, Nell Breyton, New York, c. 1900
Initially, crazy quilts were highly embellished, silk, satin and velvet patchwork display pieces with fancy, decorative handwork. The quilts were draped over furniture in the front parlors of stylish Victorian homes. Other fabrics were eventually included, such as wool and cotton. As the style evolved, fewer fancy parlor quilts and more casual bed quilts were made. The divergent styles had one thing in common. The shapes of the scraps influenced the design. 

scrappy block quilt top, c. 1910, United States
Rectangular, triangular and trapezoidal scraps were randomly pieced together in the improvisational quilts that followed the Victorian period. In these quilts, ordinary materials and stark modernism took the place of precious fabrics and ornate detail work. Quilts soon appeared with even more distinct shapes made with sleeve, leg, collar and cuff cutaways from garment making. 

scrap quilt, wools, unkown maker, Maryland, c. 1910
The connection between improvisational style and scraps was seldom more pronounced than it was in Hawaii through the middle to late 20th century. The prolific period of Hawaiian scrap quilts was far removed from movements in other places. but the discovery of the tradition provided some valuable insights into how scrap quilts appeared and evolved elsewhere.
scrap quilt, mixed fabrics, unknown maker, Hawaii, c. 1975
In Hawaii and in other parts of the world where quilts were made, all roads led back to the sources of scraps. Industrialization gave birth to those sources, and the shapes of scraps influenced design as much as the diverse populations creating the quilts. The general evolution from fancy to casual is especially intriguing considering all the alternative facts.

There are many more instances of alternative facts in the historical accounts of quiltmaking, and I look forward to blogging about some of those topics in the future. Thanks for reading! 

Friday, January 27, 2017

Alternative Facts: Scraps in Quilts (part 1)

c. 1800 - a close look reveals many of the patches were made of scraps
There is a difference between quilts made with scraps and scrap quilts, and the distinction is at the heart of what mystifies people most about America's earliest quilts. The romantic idea of quiltmaking in America is that it was born out of necessity, and that American patchwork evolved from "make-do" quilts, made to keep people warm at night. Talk about alternative facts!
pieced quilt, wools, unknown maker, c. 1800, Rhode Island
America's earliest patchwork quilts were decorative bedcoverings, elegant objects owned by affluent families living in well appointed homes. Quilts were included in the staging of homes. As furnishings, quilts and other types of bedcovers formally dressed the beds. For some readers, this general idea about early American quilts might ring a bell. If not, please read this blog.

detail: click to view enlarged version, and notice the seams in the patches
Geometric patchwork quilts, such as this T-shaped wool quilt from Rhode Island (pictured), started to appear around 1800. The quilts were elegant, but beyond that, they were modern. They were also made with scraps. A close look at the detail shots reveals seams in the patches, many of which were pieced together with multiple scraps of matching fabrics. When the makers did not have a piece big enough for a patch, they made patches from small bits of fabric.

detail: click to view enlarged version, and notice the seams in the patches
At the time, fabric was among the most valuable commodities in America. Mills were beginning to open, but the bulk of fabrics were imported, heavily taxed, and quite costly. The cost of fabric could explain the frugal use of it, although the quilts were designed to be anything but frugal looking. Even affluent families treated fabric as something precious. Their quilts may have been made with scraps, but they were not scrap quilts.

What is a scrap quilt? It may be a matter of style. Stay tuned for part 2...

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Throwback Thursday: Discovering the Hawaiian Scrap Quilt

Two years ago, I thought I might be on the trail of something good. It was a quilt from Hawaii on eBay, and it came with a story.

The quilt was nothing like the traditional Hawaiian applique quilts. It was crazy pieced on a cloth foundation, scrappy, and made of tropical print fabrics. It was backed and bound but there was no batting and it was not quilted. 

There was a very similar quilt already in my collection. Its origins were not as clear as the eBay quilt, since it came from a dealer who picked it up at an estate sale. But it was really the same thing.

The story about the eBay quilt was worth pursuing, as it turned out. It led to an undocumented tradition of scrap quilts made in Hawaii through the mid-century period. 

Groups of women called "tutus" gathered to make the quilts for craft fairs and church bazaars. They used scraps of fabrics from aloha shirts and muumuus. 

The seller of the eBay quilt wrote about the use of Hawaiian scraps, and there was talk about Hawaiian shirt collectors being unhappy that valuable vintage items were cut up for quilts. 

A little more poking around revealed the quiltmakers used scraps, but the scraps came from the factories producing the aloha shirts and muumuus rather than garments being cut up. 

I collected, keeping quiet about it until there were enough materials for a small exhibit. Not a lot of competing bidders, nobody was collecting the quilts. They just didn't come along every day. 

The first display went up about a year after I found the quilt on eBay. I published a research article in an academic newsletter, and feature articles in two magazines. 

The most recent development in my Hawaiian scrap quilt journey was a trip to Oahu earlier this month. It was illuminating, and fun to pound the pavement for a change.

For many years, I wished to find a Hawaiian quilt for my collection. So, the moral of the story is: be careful what you wish for...it could turn out to be something much more than you ever imagined.