The Study of Civil War Quilts: 1850-1865

Story by Carly Lewis, images provided by Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar

The Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar is proud to announce the new arrival of a traveling quilt exhibit, “The Study of Civil War Quilts: 1850-1865”. This exhibit will transport its visitors back to the Civil War days, through the minds of the quilt makers who lived during the Civil War era and those who choose to recreate their precious keepsakes.

Every two years, the American Quilt Study Group chooses a new theme to address in their quilt study. For this show, they chose to examine quilts from the Civil War Era, specifically the years 1850 to 1865. Participants were given the task of choosing an already existing antique quilt as inspiration, or as a template. The quilt used for inspiration could be an old family heirloom or even belong to a museum. How each participant produced the quilt was their own choice, but most relied on information about the original quilt to make these decisions. Participants were asked to share a picture of the original quilt that inspired them, an explanation for choosing their quilt, the methods they used to create the quilt, and what they learned from the overall process. The quilt selection is then narrowed down by the American Quilt Study Group selection committee. The chosen quilts travel throughout the United States for up to four years.

My Baby

During the Civil War, quilting became a necessary source of warmth for soldiers, as well as a significant source of revenue on both sides of the war effort. “Voting with her needle” was a common practice as some women would leave clues inside their quilt designs that might reveal their political opinions. Several of the quilts in the exhibition include patriotic symbols of both the North and the South. The quilt maker could include Roses to symbolize their support of the Whig party, or they could have really liked roses. Similarly, magnolias were a common emblem of the South, but was including them purposeful? The problem is no one can actually know the true intentions of someone who lived over a hundred years ago without written evidence from the quilt-maker.

Shields and Stars

Certain patterns or symbols were used heavily during the Civil War period. Symbols of patriotism, commitment, or pride are easy to identify. Wreaths, outlines, and crosshatching were just some of the elements quilts commonly possessed during the Civil War era. Flags were also plentiful, but not regular. Not only were the Union and the South creating their own version of the flag, but there were new states being added to the Union. Quilt makers would often include representations of a specific flag, based on what flag-carrying group they identified with. The “Stars and Flag Quilt” was inspired by the “Regimental Flag Quilt.” A large flag sits in the center of the inspirational quilt, which makes you wonder how important that flag was to the person quilting it.

Scrap quilts were also a popular outcome of the Civil War period. Because supplies were limited and fabrics were scarce, many women had to use cloth from items they already possessed. The quilt called “The Chase Is On,” by Vicki Hodge, commemorates this style. Hodge used pieces of leftover projects in order to “scrap together” a new quilt in this style.

Mt. Ida

Applique was also very common in older quilts. Applique is the process of sewing or sticking smaller pieces of fabric to larger ones, forming beautiful patterns. In album style quilts, applique would typically be applied to each block. Sometimes, women would collaborate on one quilt together. Each individual might work on their own blocks. Then, the quilt would be put together after everyone completed their part. The quilt named “The Mt. Ida Quilt Project: One Community, Two Quilts, Three Centuries” helps give us an example of this process. Thirteen women decided to join forces and create a quilt inspired by twelve women who lived near where they currently reside. The original quilt, that inspired them, was created by these twelve women during the Civil War. Each modern-day quilt maker chose the woman who lived closest to their own residence and recreated the segment of the quilt that was signed by that woman. The women all hand-picked the cotton used in their quilt. It was truly as if they had stepped back in time.

The Civil War Quilt exhibit will open on November 1st, and it will remain on view through February 11th of 2018. The Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar is located at 702 S. Duncan.  It is open Tuesday through Friday from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm, free of charge. The Museum is also open on Saturdays and Sundays, from 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm. Additionally, the museum would like to invite visitors to an exhibit opening on December 7th. The event will take place from 5:30 to 6:30, just before the Christmas parade. The Stillwater Community Singers will lead guests in song and the Museum board will serve refreshments.