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Autograph Bed Quilts

on February 26, 2011 – 3:13 am

A popular style bed quilt from the mid-19th century is the Autograph Bed Quilt. This bed quilt is formed by inserting a collection of autographs into the design of the bed quilt. In 1864, Godey’s Lady’s Book describes an elaborate example made by “a young lady of Rhode Island.”

Each autograph was written in black ink on a diamond-shaped piece of white silk and placed over a diagram of white paper then basted at the edges. Each piece was the center of a group of colored diamonds, formed in many instances from “storied” fragments of dresses which were worn in the late 18th century. For instance, there were pieces of a pink satin dress which was worn at one of President Washington’s dinner parties, with other relics of the rich silks and stiff brocades so fashionable in the 1700s. The whole number of pieces planned for this particular autograph quilt was 2,780; of these, 556 were to contain autographs many of them from men highly distinguished in the literary, political, scientific, and military history of the 1800s. Many included on the little white silk diagram sentiments or verses. For example, one poet wrote:

Dream what thou wilt
Beneath this quilt,
My blessing still is — Yours.

An autograph bed quilt, such as this would have been a grand feat in the way of needlework, one that would require years of labor. The mere mechanical part — the number of small pieces, stitches neatly taken, and accurately ordered; the arranging and joining of over two thousand delicate bits of various beautiful and costly fabrics — would be a task that would require no small share of resolution, patience, and perseverance. Then comes the presentation; sorting colors to make the design where so many hundreds of shades are to be matched and suited to each other. After this, the choice of the celebrities who are to be placed in the center of his or her own circle would be considered. To do this well, would require knowledge of books and life in order to assign each name its suitable place in this textile display of stars and diamonds.

Although few today would have the time for such a grand undertaking as this 19th century autograph bed quilt, it would still be achievable to make an attractive collection of autographs in a smaller way. Instead of the hundreds of names needed to create a large bed quilt, collecting enough of these autographed diamonds to make a sofa cushion or a cover for a small table is feasible and rewarding. Godey’s provided simple directions so anyone “who has a love for the needle and the pen may achieve success.”

The autograph bed quilt is made by obtaining the signatures of friends or relatives written upon pieces of white fabric. These pieces may be square, octagon, round, diamond, or heart shaped. After they are cut they should be stretched tightly over a heavy card to make a smooth, even surface for the writing, which should be done in permanent ink. Muslin, linen, or silk can be used, the silk being the most elegant, while the linen makes the best surface for the signatures. The cards may be sent by mail to friends or family at a distance. After the names are written, the white pieces can be either sewn down upon, or set into, squares of colored fabric, and these squares sewn together to form the quilt, pillow or table cover.