The 'Hexagons Unfinished Top'

Published: Tuesday, 21st June 2011 14:17 PM

The 'Hexagons Unfinished Top'

In early 2011 the Quilt Museum hosted a twelve week placement for Chelsea Starke, a student from Hamline University in Minnesota, USA.

Chelsea made an enormous contribution to the Quilt Museum and Gallery in the short time that she was with us including writing this article.

The 'Hexagons' Unfinished Top

The ‘Hexagons Unfinished Top’, donated in 2001 to the Quilter’s Guild is surely one of the more mysterious pieces in The Quilters’ Guild Collection. With no known maker and a plethora of papers associated with the piece, one can only imagine who this quilter was, when it was made and from where it originated. However, the fabrics of and papers associated with the coverlet may offer insight into the character and values of the lady in question.

Various Textiles

This particular hexagon coverlet appears to have cotton dress fabrics dating from the 1820’s, 30’s and 40’s. Stippling, the use of small dots to replicate changing amounts of solidity and usually placed around a design to fill in blank spaces of fabric, was a popular element of fabric design during the 1820’s. Geometric shapes set in stripes are also typical in fabrics from the 1820’s, and both of these designs are present in this coverlet. Fantasy florals, a fashionable motif from the 1830’s featuring block-like, stylised flowers and leaves are prevalent in fabrics throughout the coverlet, and kidney and heart-shaped leaves and flowers, commonplace in 1840’s fabrics, can also be identified.

Considering the popularity of the designs and motifs present among the fabrics, one might suppose that the maker of this coverlet was a lady who valued the styles and fashions of the day. These fabrics also prove that she likely started piecing this coverlet no later than the late 1820’s or early 30’s, and continued to do so into the 1840’s or later.

Colours and Dyes

Looking carefully at the designs in the fabrics, one may notice that the colour yellow does not appear in any of the fabrics in this pieced coverlet, although various shades of brown and orange do, but this is not uncommon. In fact, yellow is the least seen colour in pieced quilts as the yellow dyes fade rather quickly. Such yellow colours that no longer exist on this coverlet, were perhaps derived from the chromate of lead, a common dye from the 1820’s and 30’s, but a dye that has, nonetheless, disappeared.

One may also observe that many of the leaves are blue in colour. This is because the most common way of producing a green colour on fabrics prior to 1895 was to print a mordant and yellow dye on top of indigo. This yellow dye had also faded away, leaving only the indigo colour behind.

Various colours of blue are present within the designs of the fabrics, namely indigo—a reddish blue—and Prussian blue—a greenish blue and a colour more evident in the fantasy florals, which makes sense considering this colour was quite popular in printed cotton fabrics produced during the 1830’s – 1860s. Two shades of purple are also present throughout the coverlet: Light and dark. This variation in colour would have been achieved by using a stronger or weaker mordant.

There are two decaying fabrics present in the coverlet, both of which may contain a manganese bronze colour within the design. This colour was most popular in the 1830’s and 40’s, and was later found to be unstable, causing fabrics to deteriorate easily.

The woman who made this coverlet was clearly a lover of colour, and there are a great number of colours and printed designs within the fabrics used for this coverlet. Due to the dyes used and the printed designs, the fabrics from this coverlet put its date of creation firmly between the 1820s and 1840s.

The Morning Herald

While few of the papers are still in situ, the coverlet was donated to The Quilters’ Guild with all of the original papers, which provide a compelling view into the life and times of the maker. A close examination of the papers reveals that many of them are from a defunct newspaper called The Morning Herald, founded in 1780 by Sir Henry Bate Dudley. Minister, magistrate, editor, and playwright, Dudley was quite an eccentric character, having participated in a duel against Captain Stoney and having helped to suppress the riots of Ely and Littleport in May 1816. Dudley sold 4,000 copies of The Morning Herald daily, thanks to his wit, talents, and popularity within the literary and political worlds.

Whomever the maker of this coverlet was, one can surmise that she or her family were possible supporters of Dudley, or had political views in line with his... Or perhaps quite the opposite. One may never know.

The “Catholic Question”

An incredible amount of the papers from the coverlet refer to “the Catholic Question,” the political and social movement to eliminate restrictions on Roman Catholics in Great Britain and Ireland which started in the late 18th century and escalated in the 1820’s with Daniel O’Connell’s campaign. At least one of the hexagon papers refers to the Catholic Relief Act of 1829, which removed most of the restrictions placed on Catholics in the UK. It states: “Illegal Associations in Ireland expired in 1828, and now, at the commencement... year, 1829, we were obliged to pass another bill...”

As this movement for equality was quite well-known and garnered great support for both sides, one cannot help but wonder which side the maker favoured. Seeing as how various hexagons bear the title of the newspaper The Morning Herald, one might surmise that this lady shared the views of the paper and thus the editor, Sir Dudley—a liberal and most likely a supporter of Catholic emancipation.

Wanted: A Lady’s Maid

Two of the hexagon papers from the coverlet appear have at least six advertisements calling for the employment of a “Lady’s maid.” An excerpt from Samuel and Sarah Adams book, The CompleteServant, written in 1825 outlines the various roles and duties expected from such a lady:

The business of a Lady’s Maid is extremely simple and but little varied. She is generally to be near the person of her lady and to be properly qualified to for her situation her education should be superior to that of the ordinary class of females,particularly in needlework and the useful and ornamental branches of female acquirements…

The Adams later go on to list many of the various duties of a lady’s maid, including, but not limited to: Dressing her lady, tidying her lady’s room, employing herself at needlework, washing her lady’s clothes, and seeing that the other housemaids conduct their own duties to the best of their abilities.

The presence of these advertisements and the information surely beg the following questions: Was the maker looking for employment as a lady’s maid? Would she have been acquainted with any women of this profession? Was she knowledgeable regarding the roles, rules and regulations that were expected of such women

Although the identity of the maker may never be known, nor her sense of style, her political beliefs, or her future aspirations be discerned, the fabrics and papers definitely provide a glimpse into the life and times of a woman who lived in the first half of the 19th century. This coverlet is an excellent acquisition into The Quilters’ Guild collection, and will surely be the centre of much speculation and admiration in years to come.

Chelsea Starke

More information regarding the topics discussed in this article can be found in the following sources:

Quilt Treasures: Reading a Quilt

The Duties of a Lady’s Maid (1826)