Wednesday, April 7, 2010

1930s Quilts Event Report

On the 27th February 2010 at the Powerhouse Museum, Jennie Burton gave the Quilt Study Group of NSW members and friends a 30 minute talk about 1930s quilts. She brought along some 1930s quilts, quilt tops and feed sacks from her collection for us to see. She told us that she is drawn to these quilts for their colourful scrappiness and put the making of these quilts into historical perspective, referring to the influence of the depression years of the 1930s, changes in fabric dyes, the mass production of bed coverings and then the revival of quilt making between the wars.

During the Depression the number of advertisements, patterns and articles about quilts in newspapers increased so that many women had scrapbooks containing planned quilts (not dissimilar to us now). Popular patterns included the Dresden Plate, Butterfly, Grandmother’s Flower Garden, Sunbonnet Sue, and Double Wedding Ring because they all involved using up fabric scraps. “Use up, wear out, make do or do without” was the motto for these women. Quilting in the 1930s also provided a way for some to make money by designing quilt patterns, making and selling quilts and quilt kits and by winning prizes at quilt shows. Quilts were also a softer side of the Great Depression and the importance of sewing and quilting bees took the quilters’ minds off their troubles.

The feed sacks, which provided cheap fabric for the 1930s quilts, were originally made from plain calico and were hand sewn by the farmers with hand written labels. Later they were sewn by machine and had pre-printed labels that had to be soaked off in order to use them. The feed sack bag and sack manufacturers then came up with the idea of using patterned fabrics thus leading to their use in making curtains, dresses, quilts and even underwear. The finer grades of feed sacks were used for holding sugar or flour, the coarser ones for corn or chicken feed. Now they are discovering whole attics full of feed sacks which are coming onto the market.

Jennie then showed us some American feed sacks which prompted Annette Gero to show us her Australian feed sack. Among the many wonderful quilts from Jennie’s collection we saw one unusual quilt with black baskets, another with a yellow background and a vibrant ‘Trip Around the World’ quilt with such perfectly matching fabric that she believes it could only have been from a quilt kit.

Many of those attending the talk then brought out their quilt and feed sack treasures for us to enjoy. Annette Gero, Alan Tremain, Karen Fail and Melinda Smith had quite a few of their own 1930s quilts, quilt tops and feed sacks for us to look at. There were some unusual patterns and colours amongst the quilts including a number of embroidered quilt tops, a feed sack pre-printed for embroidering and one cot quilt – these usually do not survive. The show and tell generated a long discussion about dating fabrics and patterns from this era and the appropriate techniques for handling and cleaning such fabrics and quilts. By the end of the event, we had more than 35 quilts and quilt tops, along with 11 feed sacks decorating the room for our closer inspection.

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