Quilts often visually encapsulate the history of the times in which they were created. Knowing about the economic, political, and social developments of those times helps us to better understand what the quilts reveal. These influences on antique wool and cotton quilts show how the history of these two fabrics was often intertwined.
The earliest quilts
The earliest quilts in America were made from wool, linen, or a mixture of the two, and represent a period when quilting cotton was not readily available. The wool industry steadily developed in America from the mid-1600s. Although in the early 1700s, Britain passed laws in order to protect their woolen industry from the production of cotton in America.
The cotton industry
The woolen industry in America did not pose a threat, but the fear of a cotton industry developing in America threatened the economic stability of England because cotton goods imported to America were highly taxed and, therefore, a great source of revenue to the English. The story of cotton is quite complex. Except for what they might use in their homes, the early American settlers were forced to import cotton from England, who got its raw cotton from the West Indies, India, and the Middle East. The colonists did not have the knowledge or the capacity to manufacture cotton from raw materials to finished cloth. This process was kept secret in order to keep the colonies dependent on England for all their cotton goods.
Even after the American Revolution, there was still little motivation to produce cotton in large quantities because growing, harvesting, and removing the seeds from the fibers was too labor-intensive to be profitable. However, within a few decades, the South became the world’s leading producer of raw cotton, unfortunately, due to the cheap labor provided by slavery.
The cotton gin revolution
In 1793, Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin revolutionized the cotton industry. This machine removed the seeds from the fiber, a process formerly done by hand. Just three years earlier, Samuel Slater, an English mill worker, built from memory the first cotton mill in Rhode Island. As the Industrial Revolution spread from Europe to America, this country rapidly became a leading producer of both wool and cotton fabric. The wool came from the huge herds of sheep raised in the north, whereas the cotton came from southern plantations. Cotton mills sprang up in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, where large rivers supplied not only power for running the machinery, but also the large quantities of water needed for the dyeing process.
The availability of cotton
By 1830, cotton became more readily available, and we see quilts reflecting the availability of this finer, more easily manipulated cloth. The cultivation of raw cotton soared, and by 1850, the South was producing cotton to supply not only the industrial North, but also 80% of the world market. Cotton became the cloth of choice for quiltmakers until the Civil War. In 1861, when war broke out, it interfered not only with the North’s manufacturing of quilting cotton, but also with the rest of the world that depended upon southern cotton. After the large reserves of surplus cotton ran out in the North, the woolen industry had to meet all their demands for fabric, which dramatically increased due to the war effort.
Quilts made from wool
Quilts made from wool differ from those made of cotton. Sheep, flax, and indigo (a plant source of blue dye) were among the raw materials available to colonists. A sheep’s hair can be a variety of colors as well as white, which can easily be dyed. The availability of indigo as dye stuff and the acceptance of wool fiber to dyeing explain why blue is such a common color in early American textiles.
Designing wool quilts
Dyed wool fiber has a luminescence that is different from cotton. It absorbs light, whereas cotton reflects it. Wool is heavy and imposes restrictions to designs, details, and workmanship. For these reasons, early American wool quilts were usually designed with large geometric shapes and are often very difficult to distinguish from quilts made during this time (circa 1800) in Europe and Britain.
When men went to war, women took over their jobs, and therefore had little time to make quilts. After the Civil War, women made wool quilts because there was so much wool and no cotton available. Although cotton was the preferred fabric of quilters, wool quilts had renewed popularity until the South restored its cotton production after the Reconstruction Period.
The Depression Era is characterized by quilts made from rectangular wool samples. Fabric sample books regularly became outdated. So they were either thrown or given away as new wools were added by each mill. When you see a quilt made of brick-size pieces of woolen fabrics, it is likely made from loose samples or pieces from a fabric sample book.
As you can see, history shows us the resourcefulness of quilters. Where there are scraps of cloth, no matter what the fiber, they will make quilts.
Collector and certified quilt appraiser Gerald E. Roy is also a quilter, painter and antique dealer.
Learning about our craft’s history is one of our greatest interests! Check out this article about the history of art quilting for more great information! And don’t miss this video about the history of quilts and reproduction fabrics.
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