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Sampler Quilts

by Robert Shaw

The sampler quilt, a block-style quilt made up of non-repeating pieced and/or applique patterns, holds an important place in the history of American quiltmaking. Sampler quilts first became popular in the 1840s, just as block-style design began to overtake the central medallion form as the dominant organizational method employed by American quiltmakers. Early samplers, many of which are preserved in museum collections, are reminders of the most important era of transition in American quiltmaking, when this country's women were developing a new and uniquely American approach to quilt design and organization.

The majority of early European and American pieced and appliqued quilts were built around a central medallion, which provided a strong focus to the quilt's design. Medallion quilts were constructed from the center out; the central medallion was made first and then framed by a number of different decorative borders to complete the top. Medallion construction was common on either side of the Atlantic as early as the 1780s, and it continued to be used well into the nineteenth century, especially in Europe..

Block-style organization, which first appeared in the United States soon after the turn of the nineteenth century, took an entirely different approach. It eliminated the central design focus of the medallion, instead breaking the quilt top into a grid of equally-sized units which were of equal importance to the overall design of the quilt. The blocks could all be made from the same pattern, or, in a sampler, each one could be different. In either case, the blocks were made one at a time and were sewn together when enough had been completed to construct a full -sized quilt.

Block-style organization offered American quiltmakers a number of distinct advantages over the European-originated medallion format. As I noted in my recent book, Quilts: A Living Tradition (Southport, CT: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates), "Block [style] probably evolved partly as a convenient and economical means of making and organizing the top, allowing the quilter to craft one square at a time rather than having to work on the entire top at once. Because it broke the quilt top up into small and manageable units, block style also lent itself to communal quiltmaking, allowing several women to contribute blocks to a single quilt. Block quilting also encouraged the sharing (or copying) of patterns, and quilters were quick to pick up on each others design solutions."

Fueled by the burgeoning supply of new American-made cotton fabrics, block-style quiltmaking soon took firm hold in the mid-Atlantic region and and spread from there across the country. However, while single pattern block quilts had become an American icon by the 1870s, they were not yet the norm in the transitional years between 1840 and 1860. To American women of this era, the sampler was simply another way in which a block style quilt top could be organized, and many samplers were made by individuals and groups. As the popularity of the block-style format swept the country in the years before the Civil War, sampler quilts may well have served as textbooks of block-style design, a way of passing patterns from friend to friend, both nearby and far away. Some samplers were even assembled of squares made by friends or family members who lived in different parts of the country.

True to its name, each block of a sampler is different. The individual blocks can be a set of related variations on a theme, such as rose or star patterns, but they far more frequently represent a mixture of designs and motifs that have no particular relationship to each other. Some samplers were clearly intended to serve as learning or teaching compendiums. This type of sampler quilt could be used as a study document, a sort of textile source book where the quilter recorded patterns for future reference by herself, her friends, her children, or her students. Like the needlework samplers on which girls experimented with the various basic sewing and embroidery stitches they needed to learn, quilt samplers were sometimes the first quilts made by young girls just beginning to try their hand at the craft of quiltmaking. Using the sampler as a touchstone, a quiltmaker could choose a pattern or patterns to work up into another quilt.

One such beginner's sampler quilt, now in the N.E. Horton Quilt Collection, is a central medallion sampler found in Pennsylvania and probably dating from the first decades of the nineteenth century. The quilt is an eighty-four inch square. Its large central medallion is a sun or compass made up of nine concentric rings of small triangles. Two borders of blocks are set around the central medallion. The inner border is made up of an appliqued block of a red tulip in a flowerpot at the center of each side, and two different small sun blocks. In one the sun is surrounded by a pieced sawtooth border, while in the other the sun is set within a dark print border. The outer border is cornered with a more elaborate appliqued block of crossed tulips, while the sawtooth bordered sun block repeats on each side of the four corner blocks and a long rectangular "block" of diamonds centers each of the four sides. The sampler was left unquilted, perhaps because the girl who made it was not yet capable of the intricate stitching required The quilt's current owner commissioned quilter Elreda Johnson of Colorado to complete the quilt by stitching the top with a selection of traditional quilting patterns, so that it now looks as it might have had it been completed by the girl's mother, aunt or grandmother. Like the blocks themselves, the quilt stitches might also have served the young quiltmaker as learning tools to be referred to and copied.

Interestingly, however, a number of patterns recorded on early samplers have never been found as single pattern quilts, suggesting just how new and experimental block-style quiltmaking was. While patterns could be (and were) also recorded on paper or made as individual unquilted blocks, working a sampler allowed a quiltmaker to physically try out different patterns or techniques while still creating a usable quilt. And, in addition to showing what what designs looked like, samplers also demonstrated how they were actually made, making the abstract design into a concrete, full-sized quilt square.

A good example of this type of sampler is one made by Mary H. Taylor, and now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. The quiltmaker dated and signed the piece in several places, letting us know she worked on it between 1842 and 1844. Although no documentation survives to prove it, it is believed that Mary Taylor lived in New Jersey. Made of pieced and appliqued cottons, her quilt measures 85 x 75 inches and is made up of sixty-eight different blocks surrounding a
central compass medallion. It thus represents a transition between medallion and block-style organization. The central medallion takes up the space of four blocks. The blocks are a mix of traditional and original patterns, and may well represent the creative repertoire of the quiltmaker. The quilt is truly a sampler, as the blocks are randomly organized, without any discernible effort to create an overall composition. They also employ a wide variety of fabric colors and prints, which are not coordinated from block to block as they would have been in a standard block-style quilt. The result is a visual jumble, a quilt to study and to learn from that was clearly intended to be primarily a repository of the maker's knowledge.

Many other early samplers were far more carefully planned. Sampler quilts were extremely popular in the Philadelphia area during the 1830s and 1840s. Whether crafted by a group or an individual, many Philadelphia samplers were made as showy signed presentation pieces for friends or loved ones. The concept of presentation sampler quilts apparently traveled quickly south from Philadelphia to nearby Baltimore in the 1840s; in fact, that city's famous album quilts, made up of intricate appliqued blocks rather than the pieced blocks typical of the Philadelphia sampler style, represent the most highly sophisticated form of sampler quiltmaking, Baltimore was then the country's leading port city as well s the center of the American textile industry, and the Baltimore album style sampled not only a wide variety of intricate applique patterns but also the full available array of imported English cotton fabrics and American-made textiles.

One of the most spectacular of all surviving sampler quilts was made in Philadelphia between 1842 and 1843 by a Quaker named Charlotte Gillingham. It is an enormous quilt, measuring 97 x 126 inches, made to fit a four-poster bed and drape to the floor. The quilt's fifty-seven different blocks employ a highly unusual combination of techniques, including broderie perse applique, pieced work, and fancy needlepoint embroidery, which is worked in silk thread on pieces of silk fabric. Many of the blocks include new American-made block-and roller-printed cottons. Following the style of Quaker quilts of the era, the Gillingham quilt's blocks are set on the diagonal and framed with strips of sashing, and the quilt's overall coloring is dark and somewhat somber. Roses cut from roller-printed chintz border the quilt on all sides of its four-poster shape, filling in the twenty-five half blocks created by the quilt's on-point set. The blocks are personalized with a number of added drawings, inscriptions, and signatures in ink, and the quilt is covered with intersecting lines of diagonal quilting.

Charlotte Gillingham is believed to have made her quilt as a wedding gift for her fiancee, Samuel Padgett Hancock. The couple, who were both members of prominent Philadelphia Quaker families, was joined in marriage on February 22, 1844, so the quilt was completed well before the marriage. Happily, Charlotte Gillingham's quilt was lovingly passed down and preserved within the Hancock family and eventually presented to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by five of Samuel Padgett Hancock's granddaughters. It remains a testimony to the extraordinary skills of its maker, as well as a moving statement of the love she clearly bore for her husband-to-be.

While the heyday of their popularity was in the decades before the Civil War, sampler quilts continued to be made occasionally throughout the nineteenth century, both as composite records of pattern ideas and as coordinated works. A wonderful late Victorian-era sampler, also from Pennsylvania and believed to have been made around 1890, is in the collection of Rowland and Eleanor Bingham Miller. Like the Charlotte Gillingham quilt, this sampler is a carefully organized tour-de-force that allowed its unknown maker to show off her imagination and skills as no repeating block quilt could. The quilt, which measures eighty-six by seventy inches, is made up of ninety-nine different machine-pieced miniature blocks. The blocks are framed by pieced rows of alternating red squares and white rectangles which help to pull the disparate elements of the quilt into order. The outside row of blocks is set flush against the quilt's thin black binding, thereby breaking the regular rhythm of the framing. Many of the blocks clearly had personal meaning to the quiltmaker. The central block is an appliqued heart-in-hand with a heart on either side. Other applique blocks include an eagle, an anchor, four hearts, a central star with hearts and o's, a pigeon, two birds in a tree with a heart at its center, and several floral designs. The two most unusual and provocative of the quilt's many pieced blocks are built around coffin shapes centered with large crosses. Other pieced patterns include various nine-patch, bars, bull's-eye and star variations, and even a few tiny crazies, miniature versions of the most popular quilt format of the era.

Sampler quilts became an anachronism in the twentieth century. Most quiltmakers apparently found the form old-fashioned and visually unappealing and few were made after the turn of the century. However, the sampler format still allows quiltmakers the opportunity to experiment with many different block patterns on a single quilt, and it still offers the challenge of finding ways to integrate a variety of designs into a pleasing overall composition. Samplers are a window into the development of America's own distinctive quilting traditions, and making a sampler can be a fascinating way to touch some of the roots of our quilting heritage.


Robert Shaw, 435 Longmeadow Drive, Shelburne, VT 05482

Phone 802/985-0737, email: shaw.bob@verizon.net

© 2005 Robert Shaw