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Reading History from Quilts, by Laurel Horton

People read books. They also read maps and compasses. But did you know that it is also possible to read a quilt? A quilt is a bedcover made of two pieces of cloth sewn together with a pad in between. If you know what to look for, you can read a quilt just like a book.

You may want to start reading quilts by looking at those in your own life. If your family has quilts, ask to see them. Some families have old quilts stored because they are too fragile for everyday use. If your family does not have quilts, you may wish to ask friends or neighbors.

Once you have a quilt to read, spread it on a bed or large table and spend time looking at it. What can you tell about the maker just from the colors, the pattern or the needlework? Do you think the quilt maker was in a good mood when she made it, or was she unhappy? Do you think she enjoyed showing off tiny stitches? Did she use large stitches because she was in a hurry to finish the quilt so her family would have another warm bedcover? Did she use cloth in bright colors, or did she prefer dark ones? If the quilt is a family heirloom, ask older members of the family about the quilt maker and when she lived.

Sometimes quilt makers signed and dated their quilts. If you look carefully, you may find signatures quilted in the fabric, embroidered, or written in ink. Sometimes these will show you that the quilt was made to celebrate a particular event. Crazy quilts sometimes have names embroidered on them. At various times in history, people have made album quilts that were like autograph albums. Church groups often collected signatures for a fund-raising quilt and charged people a dime or a quarter to include their names. These are quilts that can be read whether you know the special language of quilt making or not. 



This crazy quilt, made 1904-1905 in Caswell County, was used by William Henry Jones. Each piece of cloth is embroidered with initials of women. "Willie's Quilt" is embroidered in one corner.





Virginia Harrelson made this quilt in the Cotton Boll, or Chrysanthemum pattern, between 1900 and 1910.



Another way of reading a quilt is by knowing the history of quilt making. If you know when a certain kind of quilt was made, when types or styles of patterns were used, or even what kinds of cloth were available to be sewn into the quilt, you may discover hidden secrets or clues that will help in reading each quilt.

The earliest quilts in this country were not made from bits of cloth. They were fine bedcovers brought from Europe. Before 1800 quilts were made with two large sheets of fabric with a layer of cotton or wool padding between them. These whole cloth covers were then quilted. The two large sheets of fabric were fastened together with small stitches in an elaborate pattern of flowers or vines. Only wealthy people could afford these quilts because they were made of expensive fabrics and took a long time to make. Most colonists used wool blankets made in England or at home. They also used furs or animal skins. From the late 1700s until 1850, many women in North Carolina made beautiful quilts made out of chintz fabric. Chintz is a fabric printed with colored patterns on it. Quilters cut out the flowers from chintz material and arranged them on large sheets of plain white cloth. They then appliquéd, or sewed, the fabric flowers on the cloth, like sewing a patch on pants or a shirt. 

This chintz appliqué quilt, part of the North Carolina Museum of History's collection, was made in 1820.

Both whole cloth and chintz appliqué quilts were usually arranged in the framed- center style. In the framed-center quilt style, a central figure or pattern is surrounded by cloth frames or borders on the outside edge of the quilt. This is different from the more familiar repeated block style, which developed around 1800. A block-style quilt is made of many squares of cloth sewn together. Each block has a pattern sewn in it. By 1850 the block style became more popular than the framed-center style. The blocks of the block-style quilt could be pieced together, like sewing two handkerchiefs together side by side. [By going to, you can learn about quilt block pattern names.]

During the early 1800s many of the patterns of today became popular. American factories also made beautiful and inexpensive cotton fabrics, and nearly everyone could afford to buy cloth for quilts. By the late 1800s, sewing machines made quilt making easier. But another timesaving device, the washing machine, was not available to everyone. Many quilt makers made quilts from dark fabrics to hide dirt so the quilts would not have to be washed so often. Crazy quilts became popular between 1880 and 1900. They were usually made of luxury fabrics such as silk and velvet in irregular shapes and decorated with fancy embroidery. They were used for decoration and not as bedcovers.

This appliqué quilt, made between 1915 and 1925 in Rutherford County, is a variation of the feather crown or princess feather pattern.

As technology changed, so did the lives of many North Carolinians. During the late 1800s and early 1900s many people began moving from the country into the city to work in factories. Instead of making quilts, many people bought blankets. In the rural areas quilts remained a pleasant and inexpensive way to make bedcovers for families.

Quilts changed during the early 1900s. Many women ordered quilt patterns from women’s magazines and used many new kinds and colors of fabrics. Automatic washing machines made cleaning quilts easier. Lighter-colored fabrics were being used more often instead of darker-colored ones. Many beautiful quilts were made during the quilt revival of the 1920s and 1930s. Beginning in the 1940s, fewer quilts were made. But in the 1970s there was a quilt revival much like during the 1920s. This continues today. Now quilts are hung in museums and art galleries to be read by young and old alike.

Learning about quilts can be very exciting. The more you and your students learn, the more questions you will have. And who knows? The next time you curl up in a quilt to read a book, you may find yourself reading the quilt instead!



See for more on the history of quilts.

The following Web sites offer photos of antique and modern quilts:[]=object_type:%22Quilts%22&edan_local=1

Museum Detectives Use Solid Evidence --by Wesley S. Creel

People have always made and used things in their lives. Those things may be as simple as a pin or a bow and arrow or as complex as a car or the space shuttle. History detectives who study them can tell the history of people, places, or events by looking at these things and understanding how and why they were used. They call these old objects artifacts, and the study of these objects and the people who used them they call material culture.

How do you think museum detectives can tell about the history of people through their artifacts? Think about what it would be like if you found something on the ground you had never seen before. How would you find out what it is? You might ask your friends, your parents, or your teachers. You might look it up in a book. It would take some time, but you probably could find information about it. These history detectives do the same thing.

The first step that museum detectives take in investigating artifacts is called description. This step has two parts. During the first part, museum registrars measure the artifact. Using rulers they measure width, height, and length. Then they turn the artifacts over to curators for the second part of description.

Curators and their assistants, called catalogers, look at the artifact very carefully and closely to describe what it is made of and how they think it was made. Sometimes they cannot tell much about an object by looking at it. So, they must talk to someone who used it or made it or someone who is an expert in this kind of artifact. They may even look for other things like it in reference books.

Curators and catalogers also do historical research. It might include information from secondary sources like county histories or primary sources like census reports, oral history interviews, or personal papers. This research explains why an artifact is historically important and how it fits into a society or a culture.

During this part they ask questions and try to find answers: how is this artifact different from any other artifact? How is it similar? How does it fit into the area or the time period? But one of the most important questions they ask is: what was it originally used for?

Now the curators begin the second step called documentation and classification. In documentation, they want to know more about the artifact: how it was made, how it was used, why one material was used instead of another, why it was designed the way it was, why it was made and used, who used it, how they used it, and when they used it.

Based on their research investigation and answers to these questions in documentation, museum curators and their assistants try to place the artifact they are investigating into a category. This is called classification. You may want to think of categories in this way. There are different kinds of clothes: socks, shoes, shirts, pants, underclothes, sweaters, and coats. These are categories—or classes—of clothes and they are grouped by their different uses—what they were originally used for. So museum curators use a similar system to classify artifacts according to what they were originally used for.

The third step—called interpretation—is conducted by many different people in the museum who use information from the curator’s investigation. The museum curators and catalogers write scholarly articles and books or give lectures. They also provide information about artifacts to exhibit designers who will create exhibits and educators who will create educational programs. Museum educators produce audiovisual programs, arrange demonstrations, produce publications, and give tours and talks.

We have described how museum detectives—registrars, curators, catalogers, exhibit designers, and educators—study material culture and explain it to visitors. Now we are going to provide an artifact example so that you can investigate it with us. Recently, museum detectives went to the Jackson family farm near Tryon in Polk County to investigate and pick up a large collection of artifacts. The Jackson family owned hundreds of things they had used on their farm from the 1850s to the 1920s, including farm tools and equipment, furniture, clothing, kitchen utensils, quilts and coverlets, and weapons.

During their work, one artifact stood out: a wooden basket. Let’s go through the description, documentation and classification, and interpretation processes for this basket.

This basket was found along with other artifacts in Polk County. Museum detectives describe, document, classify, and interpret objects like this so that we can learn more about ourselves and North Carolina history.

The registrars begin the description process. The basket measures 14 1/4 inches high, 17 5/8 inches long, and 16 inches wide. The curators and catalogers now take a closer look. The handle and the rods—long, thin, young branches of wood—are made of oak, with metal wire to replace broken or missing ones. It was made by hand by taking the rods and weaving them together.

Curators and catalogers begin the next step, documentation and classification. Documentation is first. They compare this basket to other baskets they have seen in the museum, in other museums, or in reference books. They discover that metal buckets, tin cans, glass jars, and other machine-made containers were rare on a farm in the piedmont foothills in the 1800s. Baskets were among the most common containers during this period. They could have been made from local and inexpensive materials, and often they were made by family members or by neighbors. Baskets were used to carry laundry, to carry vegetables from the garden to the house, or to carry wood from the woodshed for heating and cooking stoves.

Comparing this basket to other baskets of different shapes and sizes, detective think it was used to carry eggs. And they think it was used during the late 1800s and early 1900s in this area. And being made of oak splints, it was made of the same materials as other baskets during this time.

Now the curators and catalogers have questions about the people who made and used the basket. For instance, were the eggs collected by the family for the family? Were they collected to sell for cash? Or were they collected for both? Which person in the family used the basket to collect eggs? Was collecting eggs a job for an adult or a child? Was it a job for a grandparent or a parent? Did a man or woman collect the eggs? If a child collected the eggs, was it the oldest or the youngest? Was it a boy or girl?

Sometimes they ask questions that have no answers and have to guess. Why did the owners keep the basket when it was in such bad shape? Why did the owner of the basket keep repairing and using it? These are some of the answers they came up with. Perhaps it was in bad shape and the eggs could have fallen out. Perhaps the family was poor and it was the only basket. Maybe the family placed a high value on saving money by using something over and over again for a long time. Maybe it was a “good luck” egg basket. Maybe the basket meant something special to its owner.

Now they look the basket up in a special museum book to see how it fits in different classes of similar or different baskets. This way of classifying is used not only in this museum but in other museums throughout the world. The basket fits into the large class of objects called “Tools and equipment.” Within that class it fits into the “Agricultural tools and equipment” class and then into a smaller one called “Baskets, gathering.”

The museum curators and educators work together to tell the story of the basket for people who visit the museum. The curators provide educators with their historical research and their description, documentation, and classification information. Educators use this information to develop interpretive programs and publications, including touch talks, slide programs, and gallery tours. The purpose of the N. C. Museum of History is to “interpret the culture and social, economic, and political history of North Carolina from prehistory to the present; and to collect, preserve, and utilize artifacts and other material significant to the state.” So curators and educators must use the basket to tell North Carolinians about some part of their history.

This basket is solid evidence of a group of people who lived and worked on a piedmont farm not too long ago. Museum detectives will use this evidence to explain about North Carolina history.

You can start your own investigation about your material culture. You can start in your house. Do you have any artifacts like egg baskets? Do you have any objects that you use, like an egg basket, to gather food? Is there an object in your house that you would like to know about? What kind of artifacts do you or your parents own that they use in the kitchen? What does that artifact tell you about you? Your family? Your house, your county, your state? What does that artifact tell you about your material culture? You may end up with more questions than answers.


Material Culture is all the objects or tools—artifacts—and the group of people who use them. Museum detectives who study material culture are interested in finding out about how, where, when, and why people use artifacts. They are also interested in 

  • people dealing with their natural environment (when, how, and where they make shelter, get food, protect themselves from the weather—heat, cold, sun, rain, wind)
  • people relating to other people (when they show wealth or status by wearing expensive clothes or work clothes; wearing lots of gold jewelry; driving big expensive cars, small foreign cars, family vans, or four-wheel drive vehicles)
  • people expressing their thoughts and ideas (when they speak, create art, or worship)