The (Slightly) Shady History of Red and White Quilts

Bribes. Betrayal. Industrial espionage. The story of red and white quilts; how Turkey red fabric, the bright colorfast cotton coveted by Europeans in the eighteenth century, made it’s way to America reads a bit like a historical spy novel. Who knew European textile manufacturers were sending spies to the Levant to steal the secret formula?

In her introduction to Linda Pumphrey’s new book, Red & White Quilting noted quilt and textile historian Deborah Roberts offers a fascinating glimpse into how Turkey red fabric went from a coveted luxury import in France and the United Kingdom to a staple of American quilting.

The History of Turkey Red Fabric

Oak Reel quilt is one of many red and white quilts from the mid 1800s

Oak Reel quilt (1850–1870; maker unknown) image courtesy of the International Quilt Study Center & Museum

We live in a world that is infatuated with color, and perhaps no color has influenced the world of quiltmaking more than Turkey red. Since the early nineteenth century, the combination of Turkey red cotton and white fabric has been a classic color scheme. Aside from the simple and graphic appeal of the contrast, quilters loved Turkey red because it was colorfast and did not fade.

In terms of fabric, Turkey red is exclusively attributed to bright, clear, cherry-red cotton. However, this color is the result of a unique dying process, which began in India and moved west to the region around Turkey and Greece known as the Levant. It was a costly and complex method involving up to seventeen steps, with many steps repeated multiple times. Until the process was refined, it took up to twenty-five days to produce this brilliant red color on cotton.

A Closely Guarded Secret

Red and white quilt block called Cactus Flower block by Linda Pumphrey

Cactus Flower block by Linda Pumphrey

The brightly-dyed colorfast cottons from the East were a far cry from the drab, faded palette of seventeenth-century Europe, and the demand for a pure, bright cloth that would not fade was overwhelming. European dyers sought to duplicate the red colored cloth, but the dye recipe was a closely protected secret. So, European manufacturers sent spies to the Levant to learn the tedious dyeing process. This early industrial espionage was initially unsuccessful and Europe continued to import red yarn from Turkey and red fabric from India throughout the first half of the eighteenth century.

In 1747, a French manufacturer in Rouen, France, enticed dyers from Greece to teach him the elusive process. Once the recipe was revealed, Europeans began to successfully create the brilliant color using the chemical alizarin, which was taken from the root of a madder plant. They also used the chemical alum to fix the dye, along with multiple and repeated processes of soaking the yarns in lye, animal fat, urine, dung, and other ingredients.

Oak Reel and Flowers block by Linda Pumphrey from Red & White Quilting

Oak Reel and Flowers block by Linda Pumphrey

Early on, to obtain a uniformly colored fabric, European manufacturers first dyed cotton yarn and wove it into red cloth. By 1765, woven Turkey red cotton cloth production was in full-swing in France, England, Scotland, and Holland as dyers throughout the region continued to refine the process. Around the turn of the nineteenth century, Europeans successfully managed to develop a method of dyeing pre-woven cotton yard goods the intense red.

Prints are Introduced

A basket block is common among red and white quilts

Basket quilt (1840–1860; maker unknown) image courtesy of the IQSCM.

Initially, printing onto Turkey red fabric was virtually impossible, as the oils used in the process of dyeing would not allow additional dyes to penetrate the surface of the cloth. In 1810, after multiple attempts by printers throughout the region, Daniel Kochelin, a textile printer from Mulhouse, France, developed a method to discharge print on Turkey red. He bleached out the red color in a certain motif and replaced the bleached color with black or blue and eventually yellow. By 1815, multiple color prints on Turkey red fabric were available.

Turkey red prints became a hit throughout the European region and were seen in garments as well as household linens. Manufacturers in England, France, and Scotland began to export both solid and printed Turkey red fabric to the United States, Africa, and the Middle East. England and Scotland also exported the fabric to India. By the early 1830s, exports of the cloth to the United States were almost nonstop as boatloads of solid and printed Turkey red fabrics arrived on American shores where they were quickly consumed. Quiltmakers fell in love with the vivid and colorfast quality, paying a premium for the bright red fabrics.

Ohio Star block by Linda Pumphrey can be used to make red and white quilts

Ohio Star block by Linda Pumphrey

A Tradition is Born

The earliest use of Turkey red in American quilts began around 1830 as quilters used small-scale floral and geometric prints, primarily in appliqued pieces. By 1840, white and red fabric quilts became popular and the trend lasted for twenty years. In 1868, a synthetic version of the alizarin dye was invented, which lowered the price of the fabric and ushered in a second craze of Turkey red and white quiltmaking. Respective to quilters in their own regions, European textile manufacturers also catered

Friendship Chain red and white quilt from 1898

Friendship Chain quilt by Lydia Schuette (Circa 1898); image courtesy of the IQSCM

specifically to the quilting market by printing whole cloth panels and cheater-cloth patchwork fabric motifs in the last half of the nineteenth century.

In the early twentieth century, an even less costly synthetic Turkey red dye was available around the same time that the color’s use in quilts expanded to include embroidery work comprised of subjects and signatures with red thread on white fabric. Used in various motifs and techniques, Turkey red and white remained a popular color combination among quiltmakers throughout the early twentieth century.

Centuries later, red and white quilts are just as popular today. They’ve been the subject of museum exhibits, books, and more. In Red & White Quilting author Linda offers 40 blocks that can be mixed and matched to create a customized design—or even sewn into entirely new patterns—to create timeless, high-contrast projects that never go out of style.

For advice from Linda Pumphrey on keeping the contrast in two-color quilts, check out the blog post Tips for Sewing Red and White Quilts.

Happy Quilting!

Jodi Butler, Book Editor

Add Red & White Quilting to your library of quilting books!

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