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Antique Patchwork Made by Children

Yes, doll quilts. While charming in their own right, they are difficult to find because during the period they were made, they were considered unimportant and insignificant. Many were made from leftovers and got hard use from the little girls who owned them. Quilts made by young girls are likely to reflect their lack of refined skills in hand stitching. Girls in the early nineteenth century were trained from the time they were very young in what was thought to be their life's work. Before sewing machines were common in homes, hand sewing was important for girls to learn since they would likely be stitching all of the clothing, linens and bedding for her home.

It seemed natural, then, that doll quilts would be the perfect practice piece. Not only were they small, but a girl could start with something simple, like strips, and then work up to making a nine patch, and even sewing curves. Beyond that, if she chose, a young girl could piece a more complex design, using triangles as well as squares in her doll quilt. Both girls and boys were taught to sew by their mothers, often before they learned how to read. A very small child might begin sewing using an unknotted thread, and then gain even more practice by counting threads on a scrap of fabric.

It was not uncommon for girls to be expected to complete a nine-patch by the time she was nine years old. Amazingly, some mid-nineteenth century diaries record quilt tops being finished by girls as young as five. One quilter, Edith Bell Sims, says she began a quilt at age three, with her mother cutting the fabric, marked the sewing lines, and pinning the pieces together. Edith then stitched the patches - initially by hand and later on her new treadle sewing machine. Edith finished her quilt top by the time she was six. Sewing was (and probably still should be) believed to inspire virtues deemed necessary for every child: neatness, attentiveness, patience, perseverance, and acceptance of routine and repetition.

Girls in upper class families also learned to do needlework, although they used finer materials and more intricate designs. It's not unusual to find crazy quilts using velvets, wools and silks that were made by children in upper class families. Unlike children today, children in the 1800s had little other than their imagination to play with. Only the upper class could afford to purchase dolls imported from Europe, so children created dolls from sticks, hankies, corncobs, or whatever else they could find. It wasn't surprising that girls would want to create something just like they had for their dolls.

Often, the girls would take pieces left from worn out quilts and make them into quilts for their dolls. Sometimes, they would replicate a bed size quilt using smaller pieces, to be sure to re-create the pattern of the bed size quilt top. Other times, they would use patches left over from bed size quilts to make their doll quilts, even though the quilt top design would be lost. Most of these quilts are pieced, not appliqué, and some have been made from children's handkerchiefs printed with holiday or religious themes. Since twentieth century mothers had more time, due to labor saving devices, and smaller families, they were able to include more creative components in their doll quilts - nursery rhymes, animals, and even pastel colors.

Quilts today are made in all different sizes, each for a different purpose. Some large quilts have never seen the top of a bed, even though they are the size of a king size bed quilt. Likewise, some small quilts were made to fill a spot on a wall, and were never intended even for a doll bed. I wonder whether maybe some of those tiny quilts hung on walls and not doll beds. Copyright (c) 2008 Penny Halgren.

Penny Halgren http://www.TheQuiltingCoach.com Penny has been a quilter for more than 26 years and enjoys sharing her quilting knowledge quilters all around the world.


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