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Introduction to Quilt-Based Research

by Rachel Terry


In this article I suggest some topics for research based on the Guild’s Heritage Collection. Although I have taken items in the Collection as a starting point, many of the ideas that follow could be taken forward in a number of different ways depending on your background or area of interest. In addition, the sort of questions we need to answer about items in the Collection will be very similar to the questions that might be pursued about quilts in your local museum or in private ownership.

Starting points

Your quilt research is likely to start with a question – or a list of questions. These can be in the form of specific questions generated from looking at a quilt or a group of quilts, or your starting point may be a wider social history question. For example, how did makers in the West Riding in the mid-nineteenth century come by their fabrics; or how was patchwork and quilting represented in the women’s magazines of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?

Even if you are asking a wider question you are likely also to want to go and look at some relevant quilts at some point in your research. In the first example, for instance, you might want to assess the range of fabrics actually used in patchwork and quilting in items known to have been made in the West Riding in the mid-nineteenth century. In the second example you might want to look at what pieces of patchwork and quilting were being produced at the time and how these related to the information being published.

It is important when studying an item to look at both the physical piece and also to consider any known history or provenance. But while it is useful to bear in mind the known history of a quilt when you are examining it, do remember to keep an open mind – do the facts you have been given with the quilt fit the physical evidence? This is particularly true of dating a quilt. You might have been told that the quilt was made by Great Auntie Florrie who died in 1900. However, on examination the quilt contains fabrics that cannot be earlier than the 1930s. The quilt can only be as old as the most recent fabrics within it so this should prompt you to ask further questions. Could it have been made by someone else in the family? Did Great Auntie Florrie start the quilt and someone else finish it at a later date? An examination of where the fabrics are placed within the quilt might help you to answer this. Quilts which have been started in one period and finished in another are reasonably common – as well as a variation in the age of the fabrics used you might see a difference between the layout at the centre of the quilt and the style of the borders or additional sections, as well as differences in the stitching.

Also consider the quilt’s layout and overall style – is it more typical of the quilts being made at the end of the nineteenth century or is it in a design that only gained popularity in the 1930s?

Looking at specific quilts

What follows is an indication of some of the questions that we normally ask when physically examining a quilt or patchwork item. This is best done in as structured a way as possible and I suggest you use a standard form to capture information about items, helping you to record a large number of items consistently or to compare quilts from different collections. The physical aspects of the piece can be broken down into a number of discrete areas: fabrics and threads, construction, layout/design, quilting, inscriptions and marks, and condition. Obviously the different weight you give to each aspect depends on the type of item you are looking at –it could be a hand-quilted wholecloth quilt or an intricately pieced top with a hundred or more fabrics.

Fabrics and threads

What are the fabrics used? For example, is the quilt made of linen, cotton, wool, mixtures, rayon, or other manmade fibres. Of what quality are they? How are they dyed or printed? Is there evidence of re-use of fabrics? What clues are within the fabrics? For example, are there printers’ marks, seam lines, holes, stains, fading or glaze. Does fabric recur within the top, are there different colourways of the same fabric, how large are the pieces used, have pieces been joined to make them big enough, how have fabrics aged/deteriorated? If you can see the selvedges you may be able to gain a further clue to dating the fabrics, as between 1774 and 1811 weavers were obliged to put three blue threads in the selvedge to identify cloth woven by British weavers and not imported.

What are the threads made of? What quality are they? What colour(s) are they? How is the item backed? What width are the backing fabrics and how have they been joined? Does the quality of the backing fabric(s) differ from those used on the top?

When you have gathered the information from the above questions you will be in a position to begin to try to date the item. Perhaps you can look at pattern books in museums and archives, or visit museums with costume and furnishing fabrics in their collections. Published material on costume and fabric history and on dyeing and printing processes can be helpful. It is important to bear in mind, however, that the fabrics in a piece might have been brought together over a short time or hoarded over decades, so it is important to consider the construction and layout/design, as well as the fabrics, when trying to date a piece.


Has the item been hand sewn or machine sewn, or a combination of the two – if both, which areas are stitched by which method? Is it pieced over papers or are the patches joined with a running stitch? Are the papers still present? Is the item wadded? This can often be determined by carefully holding the item up so light passes through it. If wadded, does the wadding appear to be made of cotton, wool or synthetic fibres, or is it an older quilt, blanket, clothing or fabric scraps? Does the piece seem to have been made by one person or is there any evidence that more people have been involved (in the records or in the stitching perhaps). How has the piece been finished at the edges? Is it butted or bound; is decorative stitching, decorative fabric edging, braid, fringing or piping used? Does the item appear to have been made all at the same time or has a part been added later? Have fabrics been added over the top of other fabrics? Is the piece embellished and/or has appliqué been used? If so, this generates further questions – what techniques have been used? Is the embellishment or appliqué contemporary with the rest of the quilt? Does more than one person appear to have been involved in the stitching?


Is the item pieced in a frame layout, mosaic or block design? Sometimes it might be a combination. Certain patterns were popular at particular times and this can be a clue in dating the item if it accords with the dating information from its fabrics and construction. It can be useful at this stage to look at published references to dated examples of patchwork and quilting in museum collections to get a feel for what is common, or unusual, about the layout and when it is likely to date from.


Has the item been quilted or tied? Is the quilting the main focus or incidental to the overall design? Is the quilting contemporary with the rest of the piece? What quilting threads have been used? Look at the type, quality and colour(s) used. What stitches have been used? What is the stitching like? What motifs have been used? How is the design laid out? If the item is also pieced how does the quilting design relate to the pieced design? Again, you may find it useful to compare the item to published pieces that have been dated. As quilting patterns have strong regional variations, comparing it with pieces with a known provenance can be very useful in helping to confirm information about the origin of the quilt.

Inscriptions and marks

These can range from stitched initials or texts integral to the quilt’s design or stitched information on the reverse, to printers’ marks on fabrics, Canadian Red Cross labels, or laundry marks. It is difficult to give general guidelines here as the lines of enquiry will be specific to each quilt. However, names and places can be useful starting points for family history-type research in conjunction with any history which you already know about the item.


Looking at the condition of the item can help to provide additional evidence to back up your answers to some of the other questions we have touched on above. For example, how the quilt has been used, whether it was constructed all at the same time, or if bits have been added later or even taken away. Looking at how certain fabrics have worn or deteriorated can also give you clues to the dyes/mordants used, the type of fibres, and how the quilt has been cared for or used subsequently. Patterns of wear within the item can indicate which fabrics might have been re-used or which were new when incorporated into the item.

Taking your research further

I have given a few pointers in the section above as to how you might take your research further – published information on collections of textiles can be a useful next point in giving your particular quilt a context. To take this further by comparing unpublished pieces of similar technique or date in other collections can also help to build up a useful broader picture. In addition, if there is any information at all from the donor (or owner) of the item it can be very useful to broaden your research into a wider social history context. For example, in the Quilters’ Guild collection there are two quilts which were made in Millom in Cumbria at the end of the nineteenth century. The Guild holds some of the family history from the donor and so it would be an interesting research project to look at the place where the makers lived at the time the quilts were made and where they might have obtained their fabric. What haberdashers, milliners or dressmakers might have operated there? Would itinerant traders have visited the town selling cloth at that time? All this can help build up a picture of the wider social context in which these quilts were made.

If you are looking at an item whose maker is still alive or the next generation still remembers about a parent’s working methods then it is essential to record this information while it is still available.

Suggestions for research topics

Collection items

  •   Specific quilts or coverlets which have a name and/or place associated with them into which further research can be carried out
  •   Specific quilts or coverlets which have interesting and/or unusual fabrics on which further research can be carried out
  •   Unusual quilts or coverlets which need further research and comparison with items in other collections – items can be unusual in terms of fabric, pattern or technique
  •   Quilts by known makers who were teachers or connected with known quilt teachers – further research into person/place and comparisons with other examples of their work

General areas

In addition there are a number of general areas of research that would be of benefit to give a wider context for groups of items in the Collection. For example:

  •   The distribution/availability of fabrics in a particular time and place
  •   Finding and comparing extant pieces made, for example, for the Rural Industries Bureau and Northern Industries Workroom
  •   Dissemination of information on patchwork and quilting through periodicals and publications in the later part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
  •   The textile trade (spinning and weaving processes, dyeing and printing processes) in a particular location and at a specific time
  •   Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century quilted clothing – comparison between items in the Collection and those in other collections to put the Guild items into a wider context.

© Rachel Terry and BQSG

A version of this article first appeared in Culcita (issue 18, 2007), and in The Quilter (issues 115 and 116, 2008), the quarterly membership publication of The Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles.