How many thousands of antique quilt tops are out there, waiting to be finished? And how many more are we adding to that pile every day? One of the biggest questions might be…should we try to catch up on the backlog from previous quiltmakers or just try to keep up with our own?
There are several good arguments in favor of finishing antique tops:
~ Quilting will make the quilt top stronger ~ A finished quilt will be enjoyed, while an unfinished top is usually hidden away ~ Our grandmothers meant for them to be finished
And you will probably hear arguments against doing it:
~Antique tops should not be quilted if the quilt top is historically significant or of museum quality, a rare sample of a style or technique, or if the fabrics are so fragile that they won’t hold up to quilting. If you are unsure about the value of the antique top you own, contact an expert in your area.
~ The top will lose its antique status. Appraisers will tell you that a recently completed quilt must be documented with its finish date.
And, trust me, there are problems: Many tops were not finished for a good reason. Some of the problems I’ve encountered over the years include:
` An unfinished top that seems like it would look better with a border. Can/should we work in period style? Is there vintage fabric available or can we find a good reproduction piece?
~ Single blocks or parts of a quilt may need to be set together. Sometimes parts are included, sometimes pieces must be added. Again are there vintage fabrics available or will you look for new?
~ Quite often there are damaged areas that will need repair or restoration. Many old tops are poorly pieced. How much will you correct before trying to quilt?
Undoing, straightening, squaring up. If you start, when do you stop? Possible situations here include:
~ Restitching open seams ~ Replacing small pieces that have been damaged. Again, look for period fabrics, if possible, or carefully selected reproductions ~ Trimming blocks to the same size ~ Re-fitting borders that are too long/wavy
Some antique tops are just not visually pleasing. Can/should we remake them? How much should we do and how much time will it take? Problems I’ve seen include: ~ Too much background or negative space behind applique or embroidery ~ Sashing not in scale with the blocks ~ Setting fabrics that distract from the main blocks
And so, it becomes a balance between the workmanship and the design element of the original piece and what I think it needs. After many years of Quilt Rescue work, I’m sure it’s the challenge I enjoy the most; making the quilt into what it was meant to be.
Getting Started Quilting a completed top is a good way to get started.
These big 1930s butterflies seemed like an easy one. I bought the top as you see it here, and marked it for hand quilting.
The issue I had was that the blocks were not square and so my grid did not run true through the intersections. Dropping a sunflower motif there not only added interest, but it camouflaged the irregularities. Win - Win :)
Finding a set of finished blocks, ready to put together, is another good way to get into a Quilt Rescue Project.
I found this set of 25 pinwheel blocks at a garage sale in 1986.I set them together with the dark brown print and quilted it in traditional 19th century style with grid lines and feather wreaths.
I bought 9 little butterfly blocks at an antique store in Paducah about 20 years ago. Cute pattern and nicely stitched.
Even more interesting to me was the printing that was still visible on the sugar sacks that had been used as background blocks.
I set the blocks together with this solid yellow, but I have not quilted it because I think the real value in this piece is being able to see the sugar advertising.
A friend of my mother gave me these little Churn Dash blocks because she knew I might be interested in them. They are turn of the century and hand pieced.
I found a dark blue print that was a close match and a gray that I thought looked like a mourning print from the same period. Using the correct fabrics is important if you want to maintain a vintage look.
Quilting Style Finding a great quilt top, ready to quilt, can be pretty exciting. Then the next question might be...how to quilt it? Would it be best to quilt it as it would have been done, or would it be interesting to do something unexpected?
Here's a great 19th century Double Nine Patch in dark blue and muslin. Although the borders seem a little full, I didn't make any adjustments before quilting it.
I wanted to keep this as true to period as possible, so it is quilted with large feather wreaths with simple grid inside, plaid grid in the backgrounds and setting triangles, clamshells in the nine-patch blocks and cables in the borders.
I added borders to this mid 20th century quilt top to make it feel more finished and then I quilted it in a Modern style. It was fun to think of an antique top quilted in a different way.
One Thing Leads to Another
Sometimes, what looks like a simple project requires many more steps, depending on how far you want to take it.
I'm sorry I don't have the before photo of this piece to show to you. It was a tied comforter; blocks set with a solid 1920s blue. The problem was that it had been washed and the batting was pulled into big lumpy cotton balls. The embroidery is beautifully done and dated 1923, so I though it was worth saving.
I thought I would simply take out the ties, put in a new batt, and re-tie it. But the blue fabric was faded and I thought it deserved something fresher. After taking it all apart, I found that the blocks varied in size by as much as 3/4" in either direction. I trimmed them all to the same size and reset them with new fabric, The extra work gave me a beautiful, flat, square quilt top to quilt. Definitely worth it. It is machine pieced; hand and machine quilted.
Complete Restyle. Sometimes my Quilt Rescues take on a life of their own and even I am surprised by how different the end result is from where it started.
These Sunbonnet Girls are beautifully appliqued and embroidered. I felt the quilt needed a border, but there was just NO fabric to match that hot pink sash. Good thing, really. The 5" sash was much too wide and the color overpowered the sweet girls. Taking it all apart was tedious work, since they had been pieced together by machine with a very small stitch.
I set them back together with a 2" green sash and found a pretty pink and green reproduction floral&plaid fabric to use as cornerstones and borders. The quilting is floral and plaid, too :) I thought the shaped edge would add the perfect finishing detail.
It's hard to imagine that this is the before and after of the same quilt. It went through several drastic steps to get where it is today.
Individual blocks were cut apart and then cut in half on the diagonal.
Blocks were set on point in flower basket fashion.
A muslin triangle was added to each one.
And the whole quilt was quilted with flowers. What a change!
Cookie Cutter Quilt
I think these animals look like they were inspired by cookie cutter shpaes, although some of them are 8"-10" in size. They were appliqued with a hand blanket stitch onto 100 lb sugar sack. A look at the printing (on the inside of the quilt) shows a bridge logo and the words Cane Sugar refined by Arbuckle Bros, New York, N.Y.
The original top with animal appliques.
Sugar sack was turned over so the printing would be hidden on the inside of the quilt.
Very nice embroidery for both applique and detail stitching. Most fabrics are geometric prints rather than florals.
I thought the quilt top could use something to bring it out to better proportions, so I drafted this Hens and Chicks block to coordinate with the animal theme.
10" block, drafted on graph paper.
Then, to the stash to find prints and plaids that would work well with the applique fabrics.
No worry about matching colors; scrappy was the way to go with the blocks for this quilt.
After the blocks were made I needed to measure and find what was needed for sashing to make the length come out even.
Here's the finished quilt - original center, scrappy patchwork, and muslin sashes. I quilted the blocks with my Statler Stitcher and quilted freemotion behind the appliques. This is one of the most popular quilts in my Quilt Rescue trunk show.
Kathy O. asked me to make a pattern for the Cookie Cutter quilt. We got to show them both at Show and Tell during our recent Southern Belle retreat.
I bought this as a full quilt top. The block pattern is called Album Patch, as it was often used for a friendship or signature quilt. These blocks were not signed and they had been set together with white sashes and print cornerstones. The piecing was generally well done. I found damage in some of the sashes and also felt that the white did not add much to the overall visual impact.
Blocks were pieced from 1930s-40s prints and a variety of white fabrics.
Damaged area in sash.
Narrow sashes in a rich green and a large border all around were my solution for this one. The change in color really makes the blocks shine!
Machine pieced, and quilted on my Statler Stitcher.
This baby quilt was made by a woman who is now 93 years old. I was asked to repair it, so it could be passed on to other family members.
The layers had been tied only at the block corners. The batting was a heavy felt that had shrunk when washed. There were also large damaged areas on the edge and the back. But the embroidery and most of the top were in good condition.
I offered two suggestions: I could take the top completely apart and set the blocks with new sashing and borders, batting, and back. Or, to keep it as close to original as possible, I could use the backing fabric to repair the top and just add a new batting and back. The family liked the idea of keeping as much of the original quilt as possible.
The top was reasonably straight and flat after I took the layers apart (just a little longer on the left).
Inside I found lots of stray threads and some extra fabric in seam allowances, so those were cleaned up.
The top border showed a major color change in the area that had been turned inside for a knife edge binding.
I cut a new top border from the backing fabric and, of course, it was a perfect match.
The quilt was quilted with a simple panto. I added a backing of vintage fabric and cut bias binding from the remaining backing fabric, so everything looks coordinated and "almost" original.
It's a sweet quilt that deserved to be rescued and the family was very happy to have a family heirloom still intact.