Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society  |  November 4, 2014

Signature Quilts in the ‘Land of the Free’

Whilst travelling in the USA this summer I came across some beautiful examples of quilts, both contemporary and historical. The tradition of quilt making was bought over to the country by their new immigrants, these different cultures and their traditions coming together like the patches on a quilt to form a unified America. Jesse Jackson suggested that America was like a quilt with “many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread…” (1) . Out of all of the quilting styles, the 'Signature' or 'Friendship' quilt has always been the most fascinating for me, and America has a strong history of them. These quilts were for recording family stories, messages of luck and love from friends, collecting autographs from celebrities of the time, or some for raising money for charities or community projects.

One of the most famous signature quilts in America is part of the Smithsonian collection in Washington DC. In 1860, Mary Hughes Lord, a teenage girl from Nashville, Tennessee started sewing a quilt; when the Civil War broke out she stitched an American flag into the centre. [fig. 1] Throughout the war Mary and her quilt travelled the country and crossed both Union and Confederate lines; along the way she got key generals and statesmen, and even presidents, to sign the quilt in ink, receiving a total of 101 autographs. Signatures in the central flag include those of Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses E Grant and James A Garfield; with lesser known names within the surrounding hexagons and ribbon border. [fig. 2] This quilt became a symbol of Union patriotism and was saluted by 20,000 troops at the funeral of President Lincoln, hung in the Capitol's rotunda when President Garfield’s body lay in State, and has been hung out at different Presidential Inaugurations (2).

I was lucky enough to see an example of a large 'friendship' signature quilt at the Tennessee State Museum. [fig. 3] This quilt looks to have been signed as part of a way of raising money or as a record of a larger community as it features the names of many different families written in ink by different hands. This style of quilt would have raised funds by having each person or family paying a fee to be able to sign the quilt, and quite often the finished product was then auctioned off to raise further funds. The example at this Museum is dated to the mid Nineteenth century, leaving us to speculate that this quilt was used as a record of a community at the time of, and even for raising funds for the American Civil War, or for the war's veterans?

The Tennessee State Library & Archives has a signature quilt that commemorates the 5th Tennessee Regiment that fought during the Civil War; this was produced in 1910, by the 535 Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Paris, Tennessee. [fig. 4 & 5] Differing to the earlier example found at the State Museum, this quilt features the neatly embroidered names of the local members, and those from the regiment during the Civil War. This uniform and more decorative way of signing quilts was more popular than ink during the Twentieth century, however the lack of hand written signatures makes it less obvious to see exactly how many people worked on creating this quilt.

Whether using ink or embroidery, these signature quilts help to create a more personal and tangible link to the past and their lives; it leaves me to wonder how I can leave my mark on my own quilt for my descendants?

Kate E. Lyons, Costume Society Ambassador 2014

1) Jesse Jackson, ‘The Rainbow Coalition’ speech, 17 July 1984

2) Mary Hughes Lord on her Signature Quilt. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.civilwar.si.edu/seemore_mahlord.html. [Accessed 28 October 2014].

Bibliography

Antique Quilt Dating, Kimberly Wulfert. 2005. Album & Signature Quilt History, 1830 - Today. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.antiquequiltdating.com/Album_and_Signature_Quilt_History_1830-Today.html.

Daughters of the American Revolution Museum. 2014. Eye on Elegance - Early quilts of Maryland & Virginia. [ONLINE] Available at: http://eyeonelegance.dar.org/.

The American Museum in Britain. 2010. Classic American Quilts Exhibition. [ONLINE] Available at: http://americanmuseum.org/about-the-museum/exhibitions/classic-american-quilts/

The International Quilt Study Center & Museum. 2014. The Ardis and Robert James Collection of Antique and Contemporary Quilts. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.quiltstudy.org/collections/major.html/title/the-ardis-and-robert-james-collection-of-antique-and-contemporary-quilts

The Quilt Index, Amanda Sikarskie and Marsha MacDowell, Karen Alexander and Nancy Hornback. 2014.The Signature Quilt Project. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.quiltindex.org/sqpessay.php.

The Smithsonian, Joseph Stromberg. 2011. The Civil War 150 Years: Lord’s Famous Autograph Quilt. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/the-civil-war-150-years-lords-famous-autograph-quilt-116969023/?no-ist. [

  • Fig.1 Detail of Mary Hughes Lord's signature quilt. American History Museum, Washington DC.
  • Fig.2 Mary Hughes Lord's signature quilt American history Museum, Washington DC.
  • Fig.3 Detail of the Mid Nineteenth Century signature quilt. Tennessee State Museum, Nashville.
  • Fig. 4 Detail of the signature quilt made by the 5th Tenn. Regt. Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Tennessee State Library
  • Fig. 5 Detail of the signature quilt made by the 5th Tenn. Regt. Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Tennessee State Library