400 Years of American Quilts, Styles and Influences

Linda Baumgarten, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Tuesday, November 12, 2013Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pm
de Young Museum
Pieced quilt top fragment, England, 1700–1730

Pieced quilt top fragment, England, 1700–1730, silks and metallic threads over earlier paper templates. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

African-American quilt made by Alberta Miller, Dallas County, Alabama, 1974

African-American quilt made by Alberta Miller, Dallas County, Alabama, 1974. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, gift of Olivia Alison.

With the understanding that quilts have been made and used in America from the earliest years of settlement, Linda Baumgarten asks the incisive question of what is an American quilt. Her response is that the story of American quilts is really many stories, “written” in the stitches of the women — and men — who produced them. Although we might expect the earliest American quilts to be make-do products made of scrap textiles, the opposite is true. The earliest quilts were luxury items made of the finest materials, some imported across oceans from Great Britain and even from India.

A quilt is defined by its layered assemblage — front, batting and backing — all held together with stitches or ties. Despite the relatively simple definition, quilts came in a wide variety of styles and constructions over the past 400 years. The decorative tops could be plain, or whole cloth; embroidered; pieced; appliquéd; or a combination of techniques. The fillings can consist of an even layer of batting, cords or extra stuffing to raise individual areas above the surface.

Each group that settled in our multi-ethnic culture brought individual textile traditions and expanded the definition of American quilting. Some immigrants chose to quilt in the styles of their newly adopted home, while others continued to express the artistic impulses of their ethnic origins. The dignified and beautiful Amish quilts are among the most collectible of American textile artifacts and seemingly unique to the group. Yet research has shown that Amish quilts were influenced by quilts made by their Welsh neighbors in Pennsylvania. African-American quilts varied widely. Some African-American women quilted in the dominant tradition, while others reflected their African roots through the use of asymmetry, rhythmic variation and emphasis of the overall design over the quilting stitches.

Linda Baumgarten earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in textile-related arts from the University of Wisconsin. She taught at her alma mater before obtaining a master’s degree from the Winterthur program in early American culture. Ms Baumgarten became associate curator, then curator, of textiles for the Valentine Museum in Richmond, Virginia. Since 1978, she has been the curator of textiles and costumes for Colonial Williamsburg. Ms Baumgarten is responsible for Williamsburg’s collections of antique quilts and coverlets, costumes and textiles in the historic houses, the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum.

Ms Baumgarten’s publications include What Clothes Reveal, The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America (2002); Costume Close-up, Clothing Construction and Pattern, 1750-1790 with John Watson and Florine Carr (1999); and Eighteenth-Century Clothing at Williamsburg (1986). The working title of her next book, in 2013, will be Bed Quilts at Colonial Williamsburg with Kim Ivey.

Linda Baumgarten contributed “Protective Covers for Furniture and Its Contents” to the Chipstone publication, American Furniture (1993). The Magazine Antiques published her articles “Nineteenth Century Children’s Costumes in Tasha Tudor’s Collection” (1998) with Jan Gilliam; “Jefferson’s Clothing” (1993); “Dolls and Doll Clothing at Colonial Williamsburg” (1991); and “Costumes and Textiles in the Collection of Cora Ginsburg” (1988). (Titi Halle spoke to the Forum about “Cora Ginsburg’s Influence as a Pioneer Textile and Costume Dealer” in February, 2003.) Ms Baumgarten also wrote “ ‘Clothes for the People’: Slave Clothing in Early Virginia” for the Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts (1988).

Linda Baumgarten spoke to the Forum about “Slipcovers and Drapery in Early America” in November, 1993. She last spoke to the Forum in October, 2011 about “Costume Accessories from Head to Toe, 1600–1840.”

7:15pm mini-exhibit

Keep warm with a quilt or coverlet.


Koret Auditorium, de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Enter from Level B1 of the parking garage; pedestrians enter from the concourse side of Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive and down the steps across the street from the museum’s main entrance.