Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Prince's/Princess Feather - Hats or Trees?

What inspired the Prince's Feather Quilt pattern, feathers on hats 
or trees, i.e. date-palm or coconut palm trees? Or was it something else altogether?

(Sold by eBay seller vintageblessing in 2011)

An Indiana Princess Feather...
or is it...

This was once a fabulous Princess Feather with very fine quilting.
If use is a sign of love, it has been well loved.

From wence does the quilt pattern Princess Feather originate? 

Very good question and one quilt historians have debated for some time.

Barbara Brackman has a photo in her book "Clues in the Calico" of one of the earliest variations of this pattern that I am aware of.  This particular quilt is in the Helen F. Spencer Museum of Art and is dated 1818 in cross-stitch on the quilt, always very helpful in establishing the emergence and evolution of a particular pattern.

Although this dated 1818 quilt is listed as a Princess Feather, I see a much greater similarity to the Prince's Feather-Polygonum orientale plant than a plumed feather as later variations of the pattern would take.

Click here to take a peak at the various plants that could have inspired this pattern...or at least its name! This website has quilt photos interspersed with the photos of the plants!  Here is one titled "Love-lies-bleeding". Do you think that would be melodramatic enough for a mid-19th century young woman?

 Now take a look again at the detailed close-ups of the 1818 quilt by Mary Somerville at the Spencer Museum website.  Here is one of the central medallion but the website has even closer details of the foliage around the central figure. To my eye, this particular quilt is about plants, not feathers. Did Mary Somerville name the quilt herself or was it named by a later generation?

Gift of Dorothy Jewell Sanders to KU Spencer Museum of Art

The Evolution of a Pattern

It's interesting to see the evolution and variation of this pattern thru the years. After 1850 it seems to be rendered in red and green on a plain muslin ground the majority of the time, with occasional accents of orange, yellow or blue of some kind.

from Barbara Brackman's Encyclopedia of Applique available thru C&T Publishing

Here is an 1873 variation; and a link to another that looks a little more like mine but is still unique. Here is still another variation where the feathers are made to look more like a string of hearts.

Some think it resembles the plumes royalty once wore on their hats and wonder if Queen Victoria influenced the popularity of the pattern.

Robin W. Doughty writes in Feather Fashions and Bird Preservation: A Study in Nature Protection, “With sentiment, exhibitionism, or a confusion of both prevailing, women donned feather trimmings in every decade of the last [19th] century, particularly after 1850. In this later period, every hat worn on the street could almost be counted upon to boast a pair of wings.”

When I discovered this photo of Victoria's mother, whose to say it wasn't she who started the earlier fad that led to the Princess Feather quilt pattern!

In fact, shortly after Queen Victoria’s accession to the English throne in 1837, bird of paradise and egret “ospreys” became very popular. By 1875, the heads of English women boasted entire birds. In addition, it was believed that no lady was completely dressed without a fan of marabou, peafowl, pheasant or pigeon plumage mounted upon a tortoise-shell handle.

Brackman once mused aloud during a quilt dating workshop she was doing for TQHF in Marion, Indiana, if there might be some connection between the surge in popularity in this pattern after 1850 and the Hungarian revolutionary Lajos Kossuth's visit to the U.S. in that same decade.

Kossuth became an American darling in the 1850s and was supposedly famed for wearing a plumed hat. He was also apparently known to have caused many a woman to swoon.

Unfortunately I could find no close-up photo of Kossuth in a plumed hat, but here is a link to a very short article on the history of the plumed hat.

Here is yours truly at Barbara Brackman's induction into The Quilters Hall of Fame in 2001. 
A little bird told me that a coterie of BB's friends were going to wear hats. This is one I found at an 
antique shop on my drive from Virginia to Indiana to attend Barbara's Induction.  
This also happens to be my vision of the perfect Kossuth hat!

Yes, there is more! This is a long blog post so bear with me!

Here is the cover of the 1866 Godey's book as well as a page from it about working with feathers. This was sent to me by QHL member Stephanie Whitson Higgins.

Isn't Lillian Russell fabulous in her multi-plumed wonder? However, this photo was taken in 1898 so too late to inspire the surge in Princess Feather quilts in the 1850s. Could she have inspired the pattern to continue in polularity? Hmmm.

Or Mae West?

The American Textile Manufacturer commonly called the Textile Colorist began publishing in 1875 and its first issue contained remarks about ostrich feather dyeing. It was WWI that finally ended the overdose on ostrich feathers, although a growing outcry of bird preservationists had already begun by the 1880s.  To see an ostrich feather in order to compare it to the Princess Feather design, click here.

from Brackman's Encyclopedia of Applique

In Stafford and Bishop's "America's Quilts and Coverlets" page 192 is a Princess Feather (below) from the Henry Ford Museum with a ca1810 date (fig. 283 not 286 as stated in the above drawing). This is a very familar pattern.

A little aside. On pg. 193 (fig. 287) of the same book is a  combination of a Princess Feather and the tulip dated ca1825 whose twin, I swear, appears on page 126 of "Fons & Porter Presents Quilts From the Henry Ford" with a suggested date of between 1860 and 1890. However, the the later quilt has some sprinkling of blue flowers wereas the earlier version has no blue at all.

So Who Has the Answers?

There is rarely one absolute answer to the "beginning" date of a quilt design prior to the 1870s.  If we are lucky, we may stumble across a sketch or specific reference to a quilt design in a private letter or a personal diary in our research, but those are rare. Women's magazines were still too few to have much impact on quilt pattern designs until after the American Civil War (1861-1865).

from Brackman's Encyclopedia of Applique

However, we can certainly find plenty of possibilities for design influences even if we don't know who made the first quilt of a specific design, what she called it or why she made it.

Other Possible Design Influences

Could another possible source of resurgent interest in this pattern have come from woven Jacquard coverlets? In Stafford & Bishop's "America's Quilts and Coverlets" there are at last four woven coverlets that have the correct design elements of folage or plumes in them that very much resemble the Princess Feather design. However, these plumes are not assembled in the exact format as we see in the Princess Feather even though the potential design element is there.

The closest format in the woven coverlets to the Princess Feather design I've personally seen is of cocount trees!

This is one tiny segment (enlarged) of the upper third of a woven coverlet seen on page 248 (fig. 375) of Stafford and Bishop, also from the Henry Ford Museum. The pattern is called True Boston Town, c.1840, showing Boston harbor with its merchants ships ready to set sail for China. The upper portion of the design shows the Chinese town and the lower two-thirds of the design show Boston Harbor full of ships.

Getting back to the possible Kossuth influence. 

Kossuth was a colorful and handsome character to be sure. Here are some excerpts from Wikipedia about Kossuth:

From Britain he went to the United States of America: there his reception was equally enthusiastic, if less dignified. Henry David Thoreau commented that this excitement was due to superficial politicians joining Kossuth's political bandwagon. He was the second foreign citizen to make a speech to a joint session of Congress held in the old House chamber (National Statuary Hall), Lafayette being the first....

Having learnt English during an earlier political imprisonment with the aid of a volume of Shakespeare, his spoken English was 'wonderfully archaic' and theatrical. The Times, generally cool towards the revolutionaries of 1848 in general and Kossuth in particular, nevertheless reported that his speeches were 'clear' and that a three-hour talk was not unusual for him; and also, that if he was occasionally overcome by emotion when describing the defeat of Hungarian aspirations, 'it did not at all reduce his effectiveness'. 

Don't you think listening to a three hour speech in an un-airconditioned room in the 1850s would make any woman faint! Of course, if the speech was outside, it might have been another form of heat stroke that did the ladies in given the amount of clothing they had to wear at that time.

Comparing Princess Feather Patterns 

The Quilt Index and the International Quilt Study Center data bases offer the perfect vehicles for comparing and contrasting any quilt pattern.

I pulled up 137 examples of quilts named Princess Feather in the Quilt Index alone. It was interesting to note that Mary Schaffer had indicated on one of the Princess Feather quilts she reproduced that it was "adapted from an 18th century Virginia territory quilt currently housed at Mt. Vernon, VA."

Is anyone familiar with such a quilt at Mt. Vernon?  It would then mean the pattern dates back at least to the late 1700s as a quilt pattern! This is very exciting. I hope to track down this source through the quilt history community network.

(above) eBay 2011

Stella Rubin  -  2011 

(Here are two more fabulous quilts on Stella's here and here.)

eBay 2012 ( I think!)

eBay - Sept 2014
eBay seller - upstatetreasures14 in August 2014
This is the only one with a pillow sham that I personally have ever seen.

Copake-LOT #210 - August 2014

eBay - Nov 2013 - Indian Sari fragment

eBay Oct 2013 - woven coverlet - Princess Feather upper right corner

And this brings me back to my own Indiana Princess Feather!

I found my Princess Feather "rescue" quilt quite unexpectedly in Gem, Indiana, in July 2002. Love the viney border! Click here to see another great viney border.

Gem is an unincorporated town in Sugar Creek Township, Hancock County, Indiana. I was on my way from Virginia to Marion, Indiana with my friend Hazel Carter via Columbus, Indiana where we had stopped to see a quilt exhibit and to enjoy the wonderful architecture in Columbus that this Indiana town is so well known for.

As we continued our drive north on a back contry road, I suddenly spied a sign that read "Gem" and a bell went off.  My Navy Signature quilt dated 1941-1942 has a number of signatures from Indiana, and one of those signatures has "Gem, Ind." written after it!  (You can read more about this Navy Signature Quilt now listed in the Quilt Index by clicking here.)

Until that moment, I did not know where Gem was in Indiana because I had yet to do research on that particular quilt. But, lo and behold, here I was in Gem, Indiana!

So, of course, I just had to buy this Red and Green "rescue" quilt (above) to commemorate the event!


Here is additional info from AQSG member Carol Gebel who has been exploring this pattern for several years. You can read her research paper in Uncoverings 2007 published by the American quilt Study Group.


It was fun to see your blog on the Princess Feather quilt design. I gave a paper on the Princess Feather applique at the 2007 AQSG seminar in Lowell, MA. I agree that many were inspired by the Amaranth plant, also known as Princes' Feather, Princess Feather, Kiss Me over the Fence, Love Lies Bleeding as you say, and Prince of Wales' Feather. Perhaps the source of the belief that the design developed in Great Britain is that last name for the plant that was so popular in Victorian gardens.  However, my research which included reviewing the design as it appeared in British quilt books and contacting quilt historians in Britain determined that it is an American "invention".  Since some of the quilts include flowers on stems between the plumes, it seems that at least those quilters thought of the design as being botanical.  Others may actually have associated it with the Prince of Wales insignia of three upright ostrich plumes. The Princess Feather plant is geographically widespread and varieties are used as a food source.  Has names in many languages around the world.   Anyway, a gorgeous quilt by any name.  Love your "rescue example".  I had 3 Princess Feather quilts when I researched the topic.   I now have 6 and 1 top.  Hope to meet up with you in Lincoln.   Carol Gebel


  1. This was all so interesting! I'd love to make a feather appliqued quilt one day! Your rescue quilt is lovely in design, and I love that vine border and center star! Sweet!

    1. It has been on my list to make for years, Regan. I now have a crib size quilt similar to a Princess Feather cut out based on a one from the 1890s that I saw in one of my books. I don't think I will ever make a full-size one.

  2. very interseting!...I love the botanical tie I know that I must add one of these to myu to-do list...Thanks!!

  3. I think many more quilts were inspired in whole or part by flowers than is commonly understood today because the popular name changes in plants. The earliest version I have of the pattern that became known as Whigs Defeat is named not for a politician or party, but for a common plant. In the South, the Love Lies Bleeding/Amaranth remained popular passalong plant in cottage gardens through the mid-twentierth century and its cousin has always been called Princes/Princess Feather. I've often wondered what percentage of the 19th-century quilt pattern names derived from flowers.

    1. Very interesting, Gaye! I had not heard that about Whigs Defeat! Have you written about it in Blanket Statements and I've just forgotten already? You've got to present a paper on all this research you have been doing?!!

  4. HI, My name is Cheryl Hartzog , I am Historian for out small Community of Kossuthville, Florida. Back in 1925 when a group of Hungarians came to Florida from Pa. they named this little community Kossuthville after Lojas Kossuth,I am wondering if I may make copies of this little bit of History you have about Kossuth Feathers in quilt patterns to add to my History books ? It would be greatly appreciated. Thank you ! Cheryl

    1. Yes, you may make a copy for your file. Just make sure you give the source and a link to this blog if you share it with a group. Thank you for asking.