In Honor of President’s Day: American Quiltmakers Speak Their Minds–in Fabric!

Long before the 19th amendment was ratified in August 1920, granting them the right to vote, American women were making their voices heard–albeit silently–with fabric, needle, and thread. Although no longer silent, today’s quilters continue to express their political preferences and social views, as well as their patriotism, through their quilts. Here, in honor of Monday’s President’s Day holiday, are a few examples–some old, some new–of how we speak through our handiwork. This isn’t about politics: no matter your “political persuasion,” I hope you’ll enjoy this glimpse into a unique niche in our quilting heritage.

Appliqued Eagles (84" x 85"), maker unknown, c.1850, formerly in the collection of Shelly Zegart, photo by Geoffrey Carr, seen in Episode 7 of the documentary Why Quilts Matter

Appliqued Eagles (84″ x 85″), maker unknown, c.1850, formerly in the collection of Shelly Zegart, photo by Geoffrey Carr, seen in Episode 7 of the documentary Why Quilts Matter

Presidential elections have been a rich source of subject matter for quiltmakers since the 19th century. Elizabeth Holmes made it very easy for us to recognize her political preferences by proclaiming them boldly in her patriotic red, white, and blue quilt. The names of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant (as well as Grant’s first-term Vice-President, Schuyler Colfax) appear prominently, as well as the date, 1869, the year Grant first took office.

Patriotic (90" x 71"), made by Elizabeth Holmes, 1869

Patriotic (90″ x 71″), made by Elizabeth Holmes, 1869

For a time, this quilt was in a private collection, but (the amazing) Julie Silber, who provided the image, is uncertain of its present home. I’m thinking, perhaps, the American Folk Art Museum, but if anyone knows for sure, please leave a comment below and I’ll amend this post to reflect the answer. (UPDATE: Scroll down to see the comment from NYC appraiser and dealer in antique quilts, Laura Fisher, regarding the current whereabouts of this quilt, and a follow-up from Bev Aguilar with a link to a photo on The Pink Pagoda blog.)

This next quilt, made in 1884, recognizes the victorious 1880 ticket of James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur. Note the use of the commemorative panels in this and the following two quilts.

Garfield-Arthur Medallion Quilt (84" x 84"), made by Anna May Ensminger, 1884, photo by Geoffrey Carr, formerly in the collection of Shelly Zegart, seen in Episode 2 of the documentary Why Quilts Matter

Garfield-Arthur Medallion Quilt (84″ x 84″), made by Anna May Ensminger, 1884, photo by Geoffrey Carr, formerly in the collection of Shelly Zegart, seen in Episode 2 of the documentary Why Quilts Matter

Grover Cleveland holds a unique place in the presidential pantheon. He is the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms, as the 22nd and 24th commander in chief.

Grover Cleveland Quilt (85 1/2" x 85 1/2"), maker unknown, c. 1884 - 1890, collection of the American Folk Art Museum, Gift of Made in America - Margy Dyer, seen in Episode 7 of the documentary Why Quilts Matter

Grover Cleveland Quilt (85 1/2″ x 85 1/2″), maker unknown, c. 1884 – 1890, collection of the American Folk Art Museum, Gift of Made in America – Margy Dyer, seen in Episode 7 of the documentary Why Quilts Matter

Here’s another quilt that honors Cleveland, this time with Thomas A. Hendricks, who served as Vice President during Cleveland’s first term. Its crazy-quilt style was common for the period in which it was made.

Cleveland-Hendricks Crazy Quilt (75" x 77"), maker unknown, c. 1885 - 1900, collection of the American Folk Art Museum, gift of Margaret Cavigga, seen in Episode 7 of the documentary Why Quilts Matter

Cleveland-Hendricks Crazy Quilt (75″ x 77″), maker unknown, c. 1885 – 1900, collection of the American Folk Art Museum, gift of Margaret Cavigga, seen in Episode 7 of the documentary Why Quilts Matter

Fast forward to the 20th century. In the 1930s, Ruth E. Finley, author of Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them, designed a pattern that she called “Roosevelt Rose” in honor of then-President Franklin Roosevelt. The design first appeared in Good Housekeeping magazine, with the pattern available for purchase. We’ll never know for sure whether the quiltmaker who made this version was a fan of FDR or just loved the colorful appliqued design, but it’s interesting to note the presidential inspiration.

Roosevelt Rose (67" x 82"), maker unknown, c. 1934 (probably made in Missouri), in the General Collection of the International Quilt Study Center & Museum

Roosevelt Rose (67″ x 82″), maker unknown, c. 1934 (probably made in Missouri), in the General Collection of the International Quilt Study Center & Museum

And the beat goes on. Inspired by political campaign fabrics of the past, quilt historian Barbara Brackman created the following image, which she produced on fabric via Spoonflower to mark the 2012 presidential campaign. (Visit Barbara’s blog, Material Culture, to get the whole story, and to see examples of the historic inspiration and Barbara’s finished fabric. For more about Spoonflower, check out Jennifer’s earlier post about them here.)

Inspired by historic campaign fabrics, Barbara Brackman created this image to produce fabric for the 2012 election.

Inspired by historic campaign fabrics, Barbara Brackman created this image to produce fabric for the 2012 election.

As it happens, Barbara shared a sample of her fabric with her friend, Deb Rowden, who explains, “I, of course, started adding little scraps of fabric all around the main character . . .” Here’s what happened!

Go Barack!, (24" x 27"), made by Deb Rowden, 2012

Go Barack!, (24″ x 27″), made by Deb Rowden, 2012

Visit Deb’s blog, Thrift Shop Quilts, for a closer look at this fun and scrappy quilt.

Many, many thanks to Why Quilts Matter, the International Quilt Study Center & Museum, Julie Silber, Barbara Brackman, and Deb Rowden for use of the images in this post.

One last (and happy) announcement: the winner of the signed copy of Eleanor Levie’s book, Quilt Blocks Go Wild!, from my February 5 post is Terry (@ a quilting blog). Congratulations, Terry!

That’s it! I’m off to pack for QuiltCon, The Modern Quilt Guild’s exciting conference and show that begins in Austin, TX, on February 21. I’ll fill you in next time it’s my turn to post.

‘Til then, happy stitching!Darra-signature

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8 Responses to In Honor of President’s Day: American Quiltmakers Speak Their Minds–in Fabric!

  1. Pingback: Reunion with the Past: Vintage Quilts from Darra’s Collection |

  2. The Elizabeth Holmes ABRAHAM LINCOLN quilt is hanging on a wall (at the top of the stairs as I recall) in a home designed by the interior design firm of Willliam Diamond and Anthony Baratta (DIAMOND BARATTA on Lafayette Street in New York City). The home was published in a shelter magazine a while ago-perrhaps House Beautiful or Architectural Digest, I don’t recall). Someone could contact the firm in NYC to find out the name of the owners, if the firm would release it publicly, or else to get a photo of the quilt in situ in their spectacular interior. Hope they have protected it from direct sunlight. Laura Fisher of FISHER HERITAGE, NYC

  3. Darra, it’s good to see your name associated with quilting again. I first “met” you more years ago than either of us want to admit to, then lost sight of you for a while, so it’s great to see you again.

    • Darra Williamson says:

      Hi Patricia, Yes, I’m still here. I’ve been focused on writing about and making quilts rather than teaching for the past 10 years or so, and enjoying the blogging experience very much. Hope you’ll come back and visit again! Best, Darra

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