Sunday, April 16, 2017

Sampler Quilts & Quilts-inside-Quilts

"Pattern Samplers" or "Pattern Quilts" are one of my favorite style of quilt. It is so exciting to find a quilt inside another quilt. Even if the inner quilt doesn’t turn out to be anything spectacular, the adventure of documenting it is still just as exciting. 

I have been fortunate to own three such quilts.  One was a family quilt found in my Great-Grandfather’s home which my father inherited from a cousin it in 1974. The house had been unlived in for 10+ years at that point and was left cluttered and stuffed to the gills. 

Here are my two great aunts as young women: (2nd from left) Annie Alderton Biedler  and (r) Lena Biedler Huffman. Will Huffman, Lena's husband, is on the far left.

I well remember visiting the house in the Shenandoah Valley as a child. To my siblings and me, the house (as well as the two elderly great-aunts!) seemed like the ancient of days. The house seemed to have stopped in time at about 1920, the year my father was born and the year my Great-Grandmother died.

Lost in time Going through an Old House 

My two great-aunts seemingly NEVER threw anything away. You had to wear a mask to sift through everything and it took several years. Fortunately, my father loved genealogical sleuthing as much as I did, so he tried to eyeball everything ---although some of it was so rodent infested even he couldn’t bring himself to attempt to decipher what it was. (Guess where I got my love of history from?) 

Here is one of the quilts my father gave me that came out of this house.

I took this quilt to the AQSG (American Quilt Study  Group) Seminar in 1989 when we met in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Barbara Brackman looked at it and said she would date the blocks from the 1840s to 1890. It has the initials LH roughly embroidered on the back. My Great Aunt's married name was Lena Huffman. I am assuming she took her mother's and/or grandmother's collection of blocks and put them together in the 1890s. 

Brackman speculated at the time that here was another quilt inside my Pattern Sampler Quilt! However, it wasn't until the AQSG Seminar in 2001 in Williamsburg, Virginia when I finally opened it up. Actually, I didn't open it myself. AQSG member Judy Grow volunteered to take it up to her room and undo all the ties and take the stitching out along the top so that we could see inside. 

Unfortunately, I did not to think to have someone take photos at the time as she went through this set-by-step procedure of opening the quilt. Instead, several years later I re-inserted the inner quilt and sort of reenacted the opening of it to dramatize the process and take photos.  It was no where nears as dramatic as the first opening.

When Judy brought the quilt back to the afternoon General session, we opened the quilt and pulled the inner quilt out.

The quilt inside was a Strippy* with wonderful Indigo fabrics. It was quite obvious that the inner quilt had been well worn and patched many times before it had been stitched inside a new "cover" sometime in the 1890s, I believe.

Didn't take a photo at the first reveal so had to lay it out on my deck
when I got back from Seminar. My apologies for the shadows.

The Other Side of this Same Inner Quilt

(The other side is mostly browns; very interesting but VERY badly worn.) 

All the batting is missing where you see the Indigo. What you are seeing is the back of the Indigo fabric that is on the "front" of this quilt. Although I don't really know which she considered the "front", I call the Strippy the front.

 I even saved some of the twigs and feathers that were inside the quilt! 

One AQSG member who knows a lot about weaving (whose name I now cannot recall) told me that some of the patches on the front of the inside quilt were hand-loomed linsey-woolsey. That got me very excited because one of the other near-by Biedler family farms (still in the family at the time) had a log Loom House still standing. I can't "prove" those patches came from that other Biedler Farm, but knowing how inter-connected and inter-dependent the extended family was between the three large farms three brothers and their descendants owned from 1802-1900, I wouldn't be surprised if it had been woven in that cabin.

Some close-ups of several blocks in this family Sampler Quilt~

Is it a *Strippy Quilt or a Bar Quilt?

Personally, I would call the one side of the inner quilt a "Strippy" quilt, not a "Bars" quilt based purely on a research project Hazel Carter and I did on Strippy Quilts and reported on in Blanket Statements Spring 2007 issue #87.

I think so-called "Strippy" quilts is another area where terminology has not been set in stone. We found that one museum would call them one thing and another museum would call them another thing. Brackman refers to them as “Strip” quilts. Hazel Carter and I chose to use the British term “Strippy Quilt” for this style of quilt.
Brackman wrote in "The Strip Tradition in European-American Quilts" in the Clarion-Fall 1989 (published by American Folk Art Museum), “An examination of setting characteristics in American quilts makes the case for a traditional American strip quilt that predated the rise of the block quilt and endured as an alternative design structure in the mainstream quiltmaking culture and in smaller communities.”
Our study encompassed 120 quilts that predated 1899 and did not include Amish "bar" quilts since the majority of those were made in the 20th century. We combed through all of our combined quilt history books for published examples plus did research at the Smithsonian where we were permitted to make copies of some of the research in each of their Strippy quilt files.                                                                                         

Whose terminology will become the accepted standard in our field of study?  The Quilt Index? The International Quilt Study Center?  Will all museums eventually look to use one standard definition?

Quite frankly, it was difficult to draw conclusions from our research about any “standard” to this style of quilt. Rather, the study seemed to reveal the importance of the individual ingenuity of quilt makers working within a loose tradition.

Also, in some texts we studied, it was stated that this style of quilt was intended as a utility quilt. However, on the whole, the fabrics in the quilts in our study were of pleasing high quality. Moreover, many of the quilts in the study exhibit exquisite quilting, dispelling the assumption “Strippies” resulted from strictly utilitarian motives.

Old Family Estate Records

I knew from family records found in the old Valley House that my Great-Grandfather Samuel Milton Biedler bought his mother's quilt at her estate Auction in 1860. I am assuming that at that time whatever one didn't give away before one died —and wasn't individually listed in one's Will — had to be then be auctioned off with the proceeds going either to pay one's debts or to one's heir?  Ah, more research to be done.

I remember being surprised to discover that our family members had actually bid on items at the estate settlement auctions of their parents. I had always assumed the items we found in the old family home places had been "given" to other family members…. until Dad and I stumbled on those settlement papers.
My Great-Great-Grandmother died in 1860. We found the Estate paper listing her personal possessions that were sold at Auction to settle her estate. Each item was separately listed along with the name of the person who bought the item—mostly family members. A “Blue Quilt” was mentioned. I have often wondered if the above quilt was that "blue" quilt.
Sometime in 2013 I shared some of the photos on this blog post with the AQSG list members. Here is one very interesting series of responses from my friend Barbara Garrett from Pennsylvania.

From: Barb Garrett
Date: Sun, 28 Apr 2013 20:56:37 -0400
To: karen alexander
Subject: your sampler quilt

Hi Karen -

I love your quilt -- and that it's a family piece is even more special.

I wanted to tell you about current practices in my area that "everything
goes to sale" when someone dies or severely downsizes.

I was first introduced to this concept about 1968 when my sister-in-law's grandparents "had sale" -- that's the phrase used in PA German areas for your total house auction.   I learned that she was going to be bidding on a child's rocking chair that she loved as a child, which I thought strange at the time.     I (at age 22) thought you inherited the items, you didn't have to buy them.  Wrong. This was an old Conservative Mennonite couple in York County, PA.   I learned that if a family member wanted something, they bid on it at the auction.   I remember her family -- children, spouses and grandchildren, sitting in the front row of lawn chairs and everyone else either in chairs behind or standing.   I don't know how I learned it, but the local dealers didn't bid up the family on items – family members bought those items they wanted and it was deducted from their "cut" somehow -- I don't remember the details -- it was a long time ago and was all new to me.   I do remember that dealers would bid till something was a reasonable price, but no bidding wars with family members.   If family members got into wars, I don't know, since we were newly married and I didn't know her family at the time.

Fast forward a few decades -- in 2007 I worked with a local group -- Historic Poole Forge -- to mount an exhibit of locally owned antique quilts in an old Iron Master's Mansion.   One Amish family – Lancaster County -- loaned us 2 quilts and a few other textiles from his family (he was born in 1950).    Both he and his wife named which sale they had purchased each item from -- all part of the family.   I've learned that in the”plain” community, the old practice of descendants purchasing items at sale is still practiced.   It's actually a very logical way to disperse items in a fair way when there are 7 to 12 children plus 50 to 100 grandchildren.  There's no fighting, no taking items "because I want my fair share" – if you want it you buy it.

 Fast forward a few decades -- in 2007 I worked with a local group -- Historic Poole Forge -- to mount an exhibit of locally owned antique quilts in an old Iron Master's Mansion.   One Amish family – Lancaster County -- loaned us 2 quilts and a few other textiles from his family (he was born in 1950).    Both he and his wife named which sale they had purchased each item from -- all part of the family.   I've learned that in the”plain” community, the old practice of descendants purchasing items at sale is still practiced.   It's actually a very logical way to disperse items in a fair way when there are 7 to 12 children plus 50 to 100 grandchildren.  There's no fighting, no taking items "because I want my fair share" – if you want it you buy it.

 So, I wasn't surprised to read that your great grandfather bought his mother's quilt at her estate auction in the Shenandoah Valley -- it all fits together in my mind.    How wonderful to have the estate auction paper -- I've never seen one -- that is so cool.

 ...those are the 2 concrete examples I have.   I've also overheard women at the Mennonite thrift store where I volunteer talk about "so and so is having sale" so I'm fairly sure it's still happening.

Side note -- while the signs and ads say "auction" I don't hear people saying "auction" -- they say "sale", as in "Wengers are having sale this Saturday."    We recently had our big Relief Sale in Harrisburg -- and it's an auction of quilts.


From: karen alexander
Date: Sun, 28 Apr 2013 23:37:30 -0700
To: Barb Garrett
Subject: Re: your sampler quilt

Thank you so much, Barb, for all this information on the traditions surrounding the settling of an estate in PA among the Amish and Mennonites in PA!  This makes total sense because my ancestors were Mennonites from PA who became either Brethren or Primitive Baptists in the Valley after about 1800 (depending on the branch of the family). Almost all the buyers at my Great-Great-Grandmother's estate auction were immediate family members, aunts, uncles or first or 2nd cousins, etc.

I will share some of this insight you have given me when I put the story on my blog.   I'm glad the subject of Pattern Quilts came up today because I have been meaning to write this all down for the family. Right now its just in bits and pieces scattered here and there in my files.



Computer  storage has helped, but there still seems never enough binders or shelf space around! 


  1. Very interesting! We became friends with an Amish family who live near Berne, Indiana 2-3 years ago. Long story, but two of their girls cleaned house for us and when Josie got married, we were invited to a reception for their "English" friends the night before the wedding. I googled Amish wedding customs and found a treasure trove of articles about Amish customs, written by what appeared to be a Pennsylvania Mennonite woman. One of the things I found interesting was that newly married couples aren't given gently used hand-me-down furniture or household items as young "English" couples often are. They start with all new items...and, as in your article, family items go to sale. And, as you said, it makes sense as there are so many immediate family members. I also noted that the Amish don't place sentimental value on "things", which also makes sense. This struck me when I read it as we had gone to hike the Grand Canyon in early March of 2015, and stopped in the gift shop that sells Native American made art and jewelry. I bought a pendant marked "old pawn". The man who sold it to me said Native Americans don't place sentimental value on their jewelry...if they need money, they sell or pawn it. Very interesting cultural differences.

  2. Thank you for thing the time to share your experiences and observations, Sue. Cultural customs are so fascinating to me. I was recently discussing with a friend where we even get our notion that we have to keep our home immaculate all the time? From our mothers? I personally love figuring out how to "make do" without having to go buy something new when it comes to a tool and I rarely buy clothes new anymore. Haven't for years. Maybe that comes with age? Ha!

  3. Hello, I just discovered your blog via a link from another quilter. I love history in general, especially quilting & women's/family history. Thank you for putting this info together. When I was young, Ladies Circle quilting magazine was my introduction to quilting. Your postings remind me of articles from LC! I will enjoy reading the rest of your back pages.

  4. Thank you, Holly, for stopping by. I am so glad you enjoyed the post. I love research and writing about quilt history!