Essex Quilts & Quilt Artists
from the Collections of Essex Historical Society
Essex Historical Society (EHS) serves as steward for over 7,000 objects representing the town’s three villages of Centerbrook, Essex and Ivoryton. To serve our mission of “Engaging and Inspiring the Community,” EHS strives to partner with area organizations, such as Essex Library Association, to share our collections with a wider audience.
In broad terms, a quilt is a type of bed covering composed of three distinct layers: a quilt top, an interior layer of stuffing or padding and a backing. Ties or stitches through all three layers keep the stuffing from shifting and bunching through usage. Over time, quilt makers developed more elaborate and decorative techniques with their stitches as a result of advances in technology, access to finer fabrics and an increase in leisure time, producing the beautiful and functional art form we recognize as American quilting.
The earliest forms of quilting in Colonial America were wholecloth quilts, or strips of homespun fabric sewn together to present a uniform quilt top. Most quilts were plain with simple designs, if any. Wealthier families possessed wholecloth quilts decorated with fine stitching depicting images from the natural world, sometimes containing stuffed design work known as trapunto to provide a raised texture to the quilt top.
The Industrial Revolution improved the production and affordability of printed cotton fabrics for many American households by the mid-19th century. Specific designs within the commercially printed fabric could be cut out and sewn directly onto a wholecloth quilt top as an applied or appliqué design. Scraps of fabric could be cut to size, fitted and sewn together or ‘pieced’ to form the quilt top.
Quilters expressed their creativity and skill with repeated motifs or unique combinations of color, pattern and design. Others worked independently on complementary designs and then assembled their work as a team to from an album quilt, perhaps for a commemorative event. EHS’s Bicentennial Quilt, now on exhibit in Essex Library’s Community Room, represents an album quilt made in 1976.
Applique Quilt, 1970s
Examples such as this handmade quilt from the 1970s reflect a renewed interest in quilting. It served as a final project from a quilting class of Essex residents, with a repeated floral pattern emphasizing points and appliqué techniques.
Community-based quilt shows took on special meaning in the latter half of the 20th century as an interest in American handicrafts prompted a resurgence in quilting, by hand and by machine. Fundraising quilt shows, such as this photo from the First Baptist Church of Essex on Prospect Street (below), demonstrated the variety of heirloom and modern examples on exhibit.
More than just a hobby, quilting developed into a revered art form, inspiring exhibits, retrospectives and entire museums devoted to the history of quilting. Today, innumerable online videos, books, shops and clubs encourage quilting, a skill practiced by over 21 million Americans.
Velvet Quilt, early 20th century
Bright and bold, this machine-stitched quilt features a repeated pattern known as “tumbling blocks” to create the optical illusion of movement. The quilt top contains different rich colors of velvet, surrounded by a thick, gold-colored border, also of velvet.
It descended in Essex’s Dickinson family, the makers of E.E. Dickinson Witch Hazel, one of the town’s primary industries, 1860s-1970s. The family notes that the quilt backing is silk, dyed with tree nuts to match the quilt top’s border.
By the 1850s, many households could invest in a sewing machine, powered by a foot treadle or hand crank. This labor saving device allowed many women a greater amount of leisure time, so that in some social classes, quilting developed from a utilitarian household project into a demonstration of skilled needlework.
This example is technically not a ‘crazy quilt’ or a type of quilt in which irregular sized pieces of luxury fabrics such as velvet or silk contained visible stitches to form a colorful quilt top. Crazy quilts reflected a late Victorian fad in which rich colors and fabrics were used to create vibrant additions to the home, constructed by hand as well as by a newly patented invention, the sewing machine.
On the whole, the smaller size of crazy quilts saw them used as throws in a home’s public spaces, such as a parlor, and not as bed coverings. The size of this Dickinson quilt may correspond to that usage.
Ships Quilt, 1992
In the hands of a talented quilter, textile work reaches heirloom quality. Lillian K. Weber grew up in Centerbrook in the Looby family, whose home was taken down when Route 9 was built in the 1960s. She later moved to Grandview Terrace in Essex.
Her large-scale quilt features a number of vessels from around the world, complementing her hometown’s seaport and ship-building history. This work won first place at the Hebron Gala Maple Festival in March, 1992.
While this quilt is ‘only’ 30 years old, EHS appreciates its quality and provenance, or direct connection to creation and ownership in the Town of Essex.
Signature Quilt, 1896
Quilts represent art history, as well as local history. In signature quilts such as this one from 1896, we can see the history of an interconnected community. The appliqué quilt features several bright 19th century cotton fabrics composed in the ‘hole in the barn door’ pattern. The Ladies Benevolent League of Essex worked on it as a group and presented it as a gift of love to Lillie Phillips Chipman, the wife of William P. Chipman, the minister at the First Baptist Church of Essex, 1892-1900.
The quilt contains 117 signatures of Essex residents and parishioners who either worked on the quilt or made a donation to fund its construction, possibly as a contribution to Mrs. Chipman. Signature quilts often served as fundraisers for special causes such as the Red Cross or as ‘get well soon’ projects donated to members of the community. EHS’s collections include several signature quilts, signed by women and men, dating back to the 1860s.
The Chipmans lived in Essex for most of their lives, celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary in 1937. This circa 1920 photo shows the family near the First Baptist Church, from left: Rev. William P. Chipman; Lillie Phillips Chipman; their son William B. Chipman and his wife, Emmelline Goodrich Chipman.
Pieced Quilt, early 20th century
Quilt history intersects with women’s history, as the household production and maintenance of textiles, from spinning to sewing to laundry, often fell to women and girls. As garments were constructed, worn, refitted and passed to younger siblings, no scrap of fabric was ever wasted until it found its way to the ‘rag bag’ and perhaps into a quilt.
In this stylized pinwheel quilt, fabric remnants are sewn edge-to-edge or ‘pieced’ to form the quilt top’s 8 inch squares and then sewn onto a muslin ground. As you examine the different types of fabrics which form each pinwheel square, one can imagine the original garments or textiles in such colorful fabrics.
In some circles, quilting also served as a social function as several women, and sometimes men, pieced their individual sections at home and then came together to assemble the quilt as a team. This quilt was constructed by the Ladies Group of Essex Congregational Church, most likely in the early 20th century, but contains earlier fabrics.
The donor’s family states that the quilt was never used and descended in the family of Alice Kelsey Hayden Barto, who served as chairwoman of the Ladies Group. Alice served in the Ground Observer Corps during World War II, pictured here at the Aircraft Spotting Station on Stonepit (Stumpit) Hill in Essex. She passed away in 2003 at the age of 100.