Today we have a silk quilt, an absolutely gorgeous one if I do say so myself (not that I had anything to do with it). It was made circa 1860 by two sisters from Sandy Spring, and is in a pattern known as “Grandmother’s Flower Garden,” created with the English paper piecing technique.

First, the quilt itself. It is 8 ½ feet square, and is made up of . . . a lot . . . of silk hexagons, each one just under 2 1/4 inches wide. The borders on the sides and bottom are 12 inches wide (the top border is narrower, a design feature common to bed quilts), and quilted in clamshell and ocean wave patterns.  The silks are iridescent, and the same patterns appear frequently; it was probably not made of ‘dress scraps,’ but with purposely bought fabric. It is backed with a brown glazed cotton, with cotton batting or filler.

The ‘flowers’ were carefully, meticulously cut out so that there are matching patterns on each petal. The colors across the quilt were balanced, to create a pleasing whole. Each hexagon was quilted (that is, sewn through all three layers of the quilt) in a simple outline. The quilting is fine and even, and the stitches attaching each hexagon to the other are TINY. Perhaps it’s unprofessional of me to marvel this much over one of our artifacts, but seriously, look at these stitches:

Mosaic-type patterns (this one could also be called a variation on “Honeycomb” or “French Nosegay”) were popular in the mid 19th century, and have returned to fashion on and off throughout the next century. This quilt top was most likely created using a technique known as English paper piecing, often used for mosaic patterns. Each piece is wrapped around a paper template, cut to size, and the seam allowance is basted to the paper. Then the pieces are sewn together in whatever pattern the quilter chooses. Using a paper backing allowed the quilter to create precise shapes, and to attach small pieces together without the whole thing flopping around. The paper was usually removed after the quilt top was completed, but before the whole quilt (binding, filler and backing) was finished.  Here’s an example of a quilt with the paper still in, from the State Museum of Philadelphia.

Although a few of the silks suffer from inherent vice, and some of the purple border fabric is fading to green, this quilt is in remarkably good shape; the colors are bright, and there’s little sign of wear. It seems likely that, whether it was made for everyday use or not, it was packed away for posterity and seldom exposed to light, grubby hands, or drooling sleepers.

The quilt was donated by Dorothy Wetherald, who told us it had been made by her great-aunts Mary (1811-1877) and Esther (1814-1902) Wetherald of Sandy Spring. Mary and Esther were born in Liverpool, and in 1819 they emigrated to the United States with their parents Thomas (a butcher and Quaker preacher) and Anne, and two younger brothers. The family lived in Washington and, later, Baltimore, where Mary and Esther ran a school for several years. After Thomas’s death in 1832, his widow Anne moved to Sandy Spring with three of her children, Mary, Esther, and Joseph.

The census records do not indicate professions for the two sisters, except for 1880, when they are “keeping house” for their mother, brother, and his family. (Interestingly, that same year Joseph’s wife profession is noted as “Sews.”) More helpful, at least in the general sense, are the obituaries for each sister, reported in the Annals of Sandy Spring, though I can’t find anything that references their skills with the needle. Both Mary and Esther are noted as intelligent women, avid readers, and French scholars, who “seldom left the neighborhood.” Esther’s obituary adds that she wrote “stories for magazines,” and “enjoyed excellent eye-sight, never needing spectacles.” (No wonder the stitches are so tiny.) Mary’s obituary – she died first, remember – ends, “her inseparable companion and sister had much sympathy in her loss.”

(Here’s the back – note the hexagon-outline quilting.)

In town for the holidays?  Mary and Esther’s fabulous quilt is on display in the museum, but only through January 6, 2013.  My not-so-great photos do not do it justice; come take a look!

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