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By Carmen Ensinger
Carrollton resident Dottie Day presented the May program at the Greene County Historical Society meeting Sunday afternoon talking about her collection of Red and White quilts.
Day said she is a collector of quilts, but in no way professes to be an expert on them.
“I have always just loved quilts and I have collected them throughout my life from farm auctions to garages sales as a simple hunter of all kinds of treasurers,” Day said. “I have admired the art in the quilts and imagined the talented women piecing these quilts together from leftover scraps of material and laboring over quilting frames for untold hours and socializing at quilting bees creating beautiful everyday covers for someone’s bed.”
So, why the specific focus on red and white quilts?
“Red and white is a classic color scheme for American quilts because the high contract of the red against the white creates a strong graphic appeal which works with both country and modern décor,” Day said. “Each red and white quilt is differentiated by fabric, stitchery, number of pieces, color design and size.”
But the question remains – why were so many of the early quilts red and white?
“It is thought that the reason was due to the permanence of the dyes of the colorfast Turkey red dye,” Day said. “Plus, since large amounts of fabric were needed for the quilt background, white, undyed cotton was used due to its low cost.”
Day said that in a time when most colored fabrics tended to fade or run when exposed to sunlight or washing, the Turkey red dye was extraordinarily colorfast. Quilt makers wanted to use the most permanent materials available so this was a welcome advancement for them.
“The Turkey red dye process originated in India or the eastern Mediterranean,” Day said. “In 1868, a synthetic version of the dye was invented and American mills produced Turkey red cotton. It was not until the early twentieth century than an inexpensive synthetic Turkey red dye became available and there was a second wave of red and white popularity during the Quilt Revival, which occurred between 1900 and 1940.”
Day brought several of the many different types of red and white quilts, concentrating on what is known as Redwork quilts.
“As the name implies, redwork quilts use red thread on a white or cream background,” Day said. “Almost all the designs are worked in an outline stitch. Embroidery has long been used to embellish quilts, but the technique known as redwork has proven to be one of the most popular, enduring and collectible.”
Day said redwork reached its height of popularity in the 1920s and 1930s. Blocks are worked in stem stitch or backstitch with additional touches of satin stitch, feather stitch and French knots.
“Most often, each block is a different subject or design and some quilts have an overall theme, such as plants, animals, children’s games, architecture, alphabets or patriotic images,” Day said. “By 1914, Kindergarten Blocks were very popular. These nine inch stamped blocks were to be embroidered in red. In the 1920s and 1930s, Sunbonnet Sue and other nursery rhyme characters and animals were the most popular designs in children’s quilts.”
Actually, the redwork craze dates all the way back to the 1880s, but due to several new innovations, it’s popularity resurfaced later on.
“The first innovation was thread dyed with the colorfast Turkey red dye,” Day said. “Then, in 1874, the second new innovation made it possible for designs to be heat transferred to fabric, and finally, preprinted muslin squares became available which were cut and ready to stitch.”
Day’s most adored quilt is perhaps a redwork quilt from probably the 1930s or 1940s which she had examined by an expert due to its sheer uniqueness.
“This quilt has white blocks framed in red and blue squares and appears to be a red embroidered patchwork sampler quilt made for a much adored child due to the fact that the word ‘Darling’ is spelled out in one block,” Day said. “Near the center of the quilt is a clown spelling out the name ‘Lucy.’”
This, however, is not what is unusual about the quilt.
“The unusual part about this quilt is the uncommon style of putting the blocks together,” Day said. “As you stand on either side of the bed – the blocks face you. I can’t believe this was as accident so I took it to an expert.”
This expert couldn’t comment on why the blocks were arranged the way they were but she could lend insight into a few things.
“The quilting pattern depended largely on location and religion,” Day said. “It could be called either a clam shell pattern or a Triple Baptist Fan or Triple Methodist Fan. She further indicated that there are at least two different colors of threads in the quilt which indicates that maybe the blocks were made by two different people.”