Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Letter Perfect

As soon as women became literate, they started putting words into their quilts. Whether an inked signature block given to a friend or an alphabet quilt designed to subtly educate a child, words and quilts go together. Sometimes it's not even a word but an image, such as this hand print in an antique Rob Peter to Pay Paul quilt in my collection. Clues like this make me want to know more---Who was she? From where? And why did she sign her quilt with her hand outline? It's possible that the quiltmaker did not know how to write but this didn't deter her from wanting to claim her work.

In the United States, the literacy of women in the 19th century tended to lag about 25% behind men's literacy until the Civil War in the 1860s. Women who formerly had been only semi-literate learned to read because newspapers printed accounts of the war and lists of those killed in battle. And women passed on their literacy when they applied their skills to their quilts. This early 20th century quilt top (an ebay picture) solves the problem of extra space quite well with a lazy ampersand, the date (1914), and a schoolhouse.

In the early 20th century a mail order quilt pattern company included these letters in their offerings and just the catalog itself must have inspired folks to try an alphabet quilt.

That's what happened to me. I re-drew the c.1920 letters in small size (3" square) and relied on paper piecing to get nice straight lines. I solved the odd number of letters problem by breaking out of the border top and bottom. Women have always known how to talk and when they learn to read and write, you can't shut them up--not even on their quilts.