On a recent trip to Colorado we visited the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum. The exhibit was very well done and quite enjoyable. Our visit there, however, turned into a bit of an adventure when I discovered they had vintage quilt tops for sale. The museum had recently acquired a number of very nice tops, all donated from various sources. Occasionally after someone passes, the family finds quilts stored in dressers, closets, and trunks. Because the family has no interest in these old quilts and doesn’t have anyone to give them to, they donate them to the museum. I am sure some very fine examples may be saved by the museum, but usually the quilts and tops are sold to help support the mission of the museum.
I was super excited to see fine vintage quilt tops for sale. Here in New York, a few quilt tops become available, old quilts are sometimes found, but for me to see a large stack of old, vintage quilt tops was quite the “find.” I looked through the pile, then was directed to another area of the museum store where there were even more quilt tops. Tops ranged in age from the 1860’s through the 1970’s. There were a number of 1930’s tops, feed sack tops, many different quilt patterns, applique quilts, many hand pieced, some pieced well, some not so well. It was fun to see so many old quilts and to wonder about their history.
Wondering About The Past
As I thought about these quilts, especially the 1860’s to 1880’s quilts, I wondered if they traveled to Colorado in a wagon. For the “newer” quilts from the 1900’s through the 1930’s, I wondered if they were made by pioneers in Colorado, or whether, they made the trip from some other place as people moved and resettled in Colorado. Life in the early days of Colorado, the 1800’s even into the 1930’s was tough. Women often lived in isolated and remote areas in the mountains, on farms, some lived in mining camps. This was the old “west.” Some of the tops looked like they were made just for bed coverings, yet others showed impeccable workmanship with tiny running stitches in the seams and excellent applique hand stitched with tiny blind stitches.
While at the museum I bought a book titled, “The Quilt That Walked to Golden,” written by Sandra Dallas with Nanette Simonds. (ISBN 13:978-1-9333081-7-3) This excellent text is written from diary excerpts of many pioneer women and details “women and quilts in the mountain west from the overland trail to contemporary Colorado.” I have found this book informative and very insightful in telling the story of these hardy and resourceful women, their lives, struggles, their heartwarming stories, and the hard realities of life on the frontier.
The title of the book is rather interesting. The author points out that when pioneer women were preparing to leave the “comforts” of civilization in the East and travel by wagon to the west, they wanted to take some of the niceties they owned. Dishes were often packed in flour and sugar barrels. Dressers may have started the journey on the wagon, but were often discarded as the wagons became harder to pull across the high prairie. And, of course, they wanted to take their best dresses. Husbands, on the other hand, only thought about tools needed to carve out a new home, farm, business, or mine stake, taking enough quilts to keep warm, enough food, and other life-saving items. In an effort to compromise, women often put on and wore all of the garments they could manage, including several petticoats and multiple dresses. In spite of traveling with their wagon representing their new start in life, most of the settlers walked to the west. As a result, their garments were not in very good shape when they arrived. Not wanting to waste anything, the women cut up their dresses and made into quits. Thus, the “quilt” was really a dress worn on the long, hard walk to Golden.
My Quilt Finds – Personal Selections
I originally left the museum that day with four quilt top finds. I chose each of the quilts because of something unique about it. All were in excellent condition, hand pieced except one with very tiny machine stitching and hand applique.
1860-1880 Applique. Although with a few little stains, the fabrics in this quilt are in excellent condition and the fabric colors true and not faded. It is large enough for a twin bed. This applique pattern is not one that is often seen, it has excellent construction and almost new fabric condition. I plan to longarm quilt this top with designs that might have been used in the period. It will make a very nice display piece.
1930’s String Quilt, Star Pattern. I selected this quilt for several reasons, the fact that it was string pieced by hand, the background fabric is purple, and that the star points cut from the string pieced fabrics are all hand stitched together. The bonus with this quilt is that there is even some of the newspaper still on the string pieces star points. A friend who is a quilt appraiser suggested keeping this top in an archival box, taking photos of the newspaper and trying to find out the origin of the newspaper. I plan to do this as I think it will add to the interest of the top. I would love to quilt it, but will keep it as is because of the historical nature.
Vintage 5-point Star – Feed Sack Material. This top caught my attention because of its construction. The white background feed sack fabrics were stitched together as squares by machine. There are a couple of places you can see the printing on the material. The machine stitching is excellent and with a very short stitch length. The star points and center pentagon are all appliqued to the top. Then, the fabric was cut out behind the stars. There are a few water stains, but I think these will wash away. The fabrics are very strong woven, the stitching, including the hand applique with very tiny stitches is also very strong. I plan to longarm quilt this twin size with appropriate period designs.
1930’s “Enhanced” or “Improved” Nine-patch. Looking at this top I am reminded of both a nine-patch and also the double wedding ring because of the melon shaped pieces. Although not pieced as well as the others because it has long running stitches in the seams and the points do not come together very well in many places, the top is an eclectic mix of a wide range of 1930’s fabrics. It is indicative of the thirties with both bold and soft colors and the many, many prints that were available during this time period. This large top will certainly cover a double or larger bed. I will be quilting this on the longarm, too, using designs that would have been used in the thirties.
Not Quite Done!
After getting to the car to leave the museum, I reflected on my purchases and decided to go back into the museum and purchase one more quilt that I had seen. I did not want to get back to my New York home and regret that I had not purchased this one. This quilt was quite a lot more expensive than any of the others, but it was unusual. Very large, about king size, the red, green, and yellow prints on white background was a triple Irish chain. The quilt is beautifully pieced with tiny hand stitched piecing, precisely cut patches, is square, and has an unusual half square triangle border around the whole quilt. It, like the others, is in excellent condition; it has a few little water stains, but has fabric that can take the quilting, the washing, and could even be used. Like the others, I will use patterns to enhance the triple Irish chain pattern.
When we traveled to Colorado, I never expected to come home with these treasures. It goes to show that you never know what you will find. But, you must always be open to taking advantage of an opportunity as you many never have an opportunity like that again. Fortunately my husband also saw this as a unique opportunity and encouraged me to take advantage of it, too. Before we could fly home from Colorado, though, we had to go and purchase another suitcase just to carry our quilt top treasures home. And, getting back home, what fun there has been for me to share with others this wonderful adventure and the quilt finds from Golden (Colorado).