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Quilts and Historical Fiction

Posted by on September 12, 2011

I’m happy to introduce Stephanie Grace Whitson to you, although if you’ve read any of her books, I’ll be wasting my breath. I’m in the process of reading her recent book, An Unsuitable Match, and am enjoying it very much. Stephanie has a new book coming out next year with Barbour titled The Key on the Quilt, so I’ve asked her to tell us a little about quilts in history. She graciously consented, and here she is to do just that.

      I readily admit that “it’s the history” that draws me to historical fiction. And it’s a good thing that I love history, because writing historical fiction means that before I dress, move, or feed anyone … I have to do research. I’m never happier than when I’m in my studio surrounded by piles of “dry” (to others) history books, historical documents, sepia-toned photographs, and enlargements of historical settings for my current work-in-progress. I literally end up in a “nest” surrounded by ephemera and, on occasion, patchwork.

            Patchwork?! Yep. I’m an avid textile geek. I adore old fabric and have several running feet of antique quilt tops and quilts stored in a walk-in-closet just off my office. In fact, one set of quilt blocks in particular played a role in my beginning the story that became my first novel back in 1995. I’d stood in the hot sun for hours waiting for an auctioneer to sell a box of rags … because among the “rags” were some diamond-shaped quilt blocks that, had they ever been finished, would have made the center of what quilt lovers call a Blazing Star or a Bethlehem Star quilt. It was only natural for me to imagine my heroine stitching those blocks together … and only natural for me to wonder why she never finished them.

Those bits of cloth led me to take a class in dating quilts … and another class … and, eventually, a class in appraising quilts … and then another … and so it goes. I continue to have a passionate fascination with antique fabric and American quilts, and as I’ve collected quilts and tops and blocks, I’ve always wondered about the women who made them. Why, for example, did this woman cut up what appears to be a devotional book? It’s a technique known as English paper piecing, but I find myself wondering about the papers used and wondering … was she upset with God when she cut up that devotional book or Sunday School manual? Why didn’t this baby quilt get finished? And I love meeting frugal women who pieced bits together to get a larger bit for patchwork. If you look carefully, you can see where the seam is on the triangle in the center here. And every white square in this photograph has been pieced from smaller bits to get that square.

Over the years, as I’ve read women’s diaries and reminiscences, I’ve collected references to quilts and “comforts,” and I love including references to what historians call ‘material culture’ in my stories. In Sixteen Brides I had fun helping a woman who ran a store get rid of some awful orange fabric by marketing it as fabric that would make quilts “shimmer.” As it turns out, one woman takes on the challenge and makes a beautiful dark blue and orange quilt. I keep thinking I should try it. But I’m a quilt lover, not really a quiltmaker.

Since my books are usually set in the 19th Century on the Great Plains, I can reference quilts as bedding, room dividers, front doors and more … and I can use quilting bees as natural settings for conversation and competition among women. A courthouse steps quilt plays an important role in next year’s release with Barbour titled The Key on the Quilt.

I sometimes give a lecture called “Dress Your Beds Fashionably” that shares general guidelines for what a bed would “wear,” in a given time period, but my knowledge of quilt history helps me dress my ladies, too. The book Dating Fabrics, A color guide 1800-1960 by Eileen Jahnke Trestain includes color plates of popular fabric divided by era: Pre-1830, 1830-1860, 1860-1880, 1880-1910, and so on up through 1960. It’s a wonderful resource that helps me “see color” in my sepia-toned photograph collection.

The more I learn about antique quilts and textiles, the more I want to know. I’m fortunate to live near the International Quilt Study Center and Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska, where exhibitions never cease to inspire more questions and lead me on new quests to get to know the women behind the quilts. I never know when a new idea will spring up as I ponder patchwork.

If you’d like a copy of the hand-out I provide when I give my “Dress Your Beds Fashionably” lecture, I’d be happy to e-mail a copy. Just send your request to, and indicate “Dress Your Beds” in the subject line.

Thank you, Stephanie! Please leave a comment if you’ve enjoyed Stephanie’s blog, and make sure to check out some great reading by Stephanie Grace Whitson. You’ll find yourself quickly absorbed in her stories.

7 Responses to Quilts and Historical Fiction

  1. June Foster

    I so admire (no pun intended) you ladies who are able to create such beautiful works of art. What patience it must take.

  2. Rita Gerlach

    Loved the post and the comments.
    I started making quilts back in the early 90s. I have a couple very old ones and every time I look at them, I wonder about the woman who made spent all those hours sewing and quilting. I made a king size quilt in 2005 for my parents. My father had Alzheimer’s and he would sleep under it for comfort. When he passed away, my mother returned it to me.

    I wrote a post for the Colonial Quills blog about quilts in the Colonial period you might find interesting.

  3. Debby Lee

    Hi all, I just wanted to chime in and say thqt my grandgather made quilts out of old clothing and cloth scraps. He did such an awesome job he won a lot of blue ribbons at the local fair and the local newspaper did an article about him. Many of his quilts were donated to the local Lutheran Church Missionary team and were sent around the world. I am so proud of him for this and wish I would have listened a little more when he tried to teach me as a small child.

  4. Salena Stormo

    I love quilts. I am drawn to them and own more than I probably should. There is something comforting about them. Perhaps because I remember from my childhood, how my great – grandmother was always quilting. She lived to be 100 years old and her last quilt was a double wedding ring for my mother. I have several of her quilts in a trunk that I will pass onto my son when he is older.

  5. Stephanie Whitson

    Me, too, DeAnna … wondering about those fabrics and wishing they could talk to me was part of what became my first novel. One thing I have learned from textile historians is that our notion that the calico scrap quilts exist because “they didn’t have enough fabric” is likely a myth. Frugal … yes. Fabric deprived … not always. There are exceptions, of course. Chintz is a many-step process and was very expensive. The cost may have been what started the practice of cut-out applique. You could make a yard of Chintz go a long way if you cut out the floral bouquets & etc. and spaced them out onto a plain background in an attractive way.
    How I wish women would have talked about what they did and why a little more!

  6. Carla Olson Gade

    What an interesting article. Finding those unused quilt pieces, the devotional paper…sounds like a prompt for a story within itself! I really enjoyed it so much.

  7. DeAnna Julie Dodson

    As a writer and a quilter, this fascinates me. I always wonder about the fabrics that ended up in old quilts and who wore the clothes or hung the curtains or slept in the bedding that fabric eventually came from.

    I definitely want to read The Key on the Quilt.