Twining Roses and Indigo Leaves: A Rebirth of Gold Rush Quilts
by Chiori Santiago
A hundred and fifty years ago, a housewife went shopping for a bed cover. She was well-to-do, probably; she didn't have to depend on a rag bag full of fabric scraps to piece together a quilt top. Instead, she splurged on several yards of cotton chintz with a stylish pattern of blue leaves and red roses printed on cloth the color of cream-laced tea. She quilted the yardage by hand in neat, diagonal lines of tiny stitches, making a handsome coverlet that became one of the most-loved items in her household.
That floral "whole cloth" quilt now rests in the Oakland Museum of California's collection of historic textiles, carefully wrapped in tissue and stored away from light. The emphatic red and blue print, however, has a new life as the focal point of a modern line of fabrics produced by P & B Textiles in Burlingame, the result of an unusual collaboration to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Gold Rush.
"Fabrics from the Oakland Museum of California by P & B Textiles" is the museum's first licensing venture and a novel way to bring history home. Bolts of the fabric, embellished with six patterns drawn from 19th-century quilts in History Department collections, go on sale in shops nationwide in January, 1998.
"What we're doing with the museum is conservation, in a way," says Deborah Corsini, creative director for P & B Textiles, one of the country's five largest manufacturers of cotton fabric for quilters. The new fabrics are slightly modified, "reproduction style" translations of the historic patterns, printed at one of the few plants in the country that still uses engraved copper rollers. "The machinery hasn't changed that much since Gold Rush times," Corsini notes.
The project occurred to Inez Brooks-Myers, the museum's curator of costume and textiles, when she was searching the collection for artifacts in preparation for the exhibition GOLD FEVER! The Lure and Legacy of the California Gold Rush. Some of the fabrics in the fading pieced blocks and well-worn quilts were so charming, and surprisingly contemporary, that Brooks-Myers thought they might appeal to modern-day quilters, too.
The contacted several textile companies, including P & B Textiles. The company had a number of reproduction-style fabric collections and was interested in expanding the line. Last November, Corsini and her assistant, Angie Parrish, came to the museum for a look. The three women pored over the samples, Corsini and Parrish zeroing in on patterns with appeal for quilters while Brooks-Myers indulged in a bit of detective work, searching for clues as to the age and origin of each snippet of cloth.
"I thought quilting fabric was going in the direction of tiny overall figures, but they were looking for something more bold," says Brooks-Myers. She stands in the Oakland Museum's textile storage room, a narrow corridor of space something like an oversized walk-in closet. Overhead decades-old suits, nightgowns, dresses and uniforms hang. Below, banks of drawers hold carefully-labeled lingerie, handkerchiefs and baby booties. From one drawer, Brooks-Myers extracts the tissue-shrouded trove of cotton quilts.
"I started pointing out the little calicos and patterns like this," she says, tapping a quilt block with a pattern of small red-pink leaves arranged in a quatrefoil. "It is very square, tight and clean, the type of pattern so many people are used to seeing in a quilt."
The quatrefoil made it into the P & B line, but the pattern Corsini chose to anchor the collection wasn't as obvious. "We were looking for something unusual," the designer explains. "We spent a day or two looking at all the quilts to see what was different. We eliminated a lot of nice fabric before we settled on a beautiful floral chintz from a whole-cloth quilt. We don't do a lot of large-scale pieces, and there was nothing like it in our collection, so it caught my eye. We then looked for patterns that would fit with the chintz."
A few lifetimes ago, a designer like Corsini had drafted this array of twining roses and scrolls and indigo leaves; a textile company in one of the original 13 states had printed the image on yards of bleached cloth; and a woman headed for California had chosen that pattern from stacks of fabric at a general store. During the project, Deborah Corsini and Inez Brooks-Myers considered that woman, thought about her taste, her times, her motivation. Corsini searched for cloth that same woman might buy today; Brooks-Myers imagined an adventurous wife setting up house in an unknown land.
"Women coming west bought dress goods and packed them up to make clothing, not knowing what would be available out here," the curator says. "It's a romantic myth that all our ancestors were poverty-stricken and thrifty individuals who made it out west by grit. Setting out for California took money. In many cases the Gold Rush pioneers were middle-class Americans; they could buy new fabrics and cut them up for quilts. They didn't just make quilts from leftovers and worn fabrics.
"This was a favorite quilt," she says of the chintz. "You can see by the frayed binding that it was really used. It's backed in this small egg pattern in the same tan-blue color range, very similar to what modern quilters are doing." She guesses the quilt was made in the middle of the 19th century, admitting it's difficult to pinpoint the age of fabrics in the collection.
"As historians, we have to make guesses based on the style and types of fabrics in clothing production and home decorating of the timeand based on intuition. The quatrefoil is from a pieced quilt from about the 1860s to '80s; the calicos probably are from wash dresses, aprons and shirts. Of course, the fabric may have been acquired by the maker as a child and used later in a quilt with newer materials. We just don't know."
Corsini also chose a stylized flower pattern from another whole-cloth quilt. "It has the feel of the era," she explains. The original mid-19th-century quilt is worn almost to translucence and holds the memory, perhaps, of family strife: it's been hacked into several pieces. "Sometimes, when relatives argued over a heirloom, someone exercised Solomon's law," Brooks-Myers says. She spreads a swatch of the P & B version over the brown-and-cream original. "You can see the new one is not a slavish reproduction. The pattern has been reduced about fifty percent. It's a crisper, brighter version."
She turns to another pattern in the P & B collection that was reconstructed in much the way archeologists envision a dinosaur skeleton based on a few shards of bone. "When I see this little paisley, it just blows my mind. This is from a teeny, tiny triangle in a pieced star in a quilt. We didn't even have the whole pattern." Deborah Corsini was undaunted. She photographed the fragment and sent it to a fabric artist, who recreated the "tail" of the paisley shape and devised a repeating pattern. Some fine lines in the background were eliminated (the designers felt them too difficult to duplicate using modern printing processes), otherwise the finished fabric is a remarkable "legacy of the California Gold Rush in fabric," as she likes to say. A geometric design of plaid boxes from the 1890s and a whimsical acorn pattern, circa 1860s70s, that seemed to Brooks-Myers the perfect emblem of Oakland, complete the collection.
Once the patterns were chosen, an artist worked from photographs to paint slightly simplified versions of the images and "put them into repeat," arranging them as an all-over, repeating motif. These near-reproductions of the historic fabrics, in their original colors, formed the core of the collection. This group is what's known as a "color story."
Next, Corsini scanned the paintings and worked on "color ways" using a computer. In a color way, a single pattern is interpreted in varying palettes. Corsini began with the focal print---the red-and-blue chintz---and chose alternative color combinations that complemented it. "It's a big process of elimination," she explains. "I worked with the most complicated image first, the one with the most color, and designed four different color ways."
The quatrefoil, for example, is printed in light blue, brown, forest green and navy versions in addition to the original red-pink. If red-and-blue roses aren't for you, you could opt for the chintz pattern in an auberge and moss-green alternative, a "non-traditional" color story. Add up all the color ways, and you have 26 different fabrics engendered by one modest collection of old quilts.
Finished patterns were sent to Santee, a textile manufacturer in South Carolina, to be engraved on copper rollers. "Theyre one of the few companies that still print this way," says Corsini. "Most use a photographic technique on screens because it's twice the cost to engrave, but you get finer detail and sharper lines. The advantage of copper rollers is that the engraving lasts longer and the quality is better. Plus, copper rollers were used in the Gold Rush period."
She bends over an "engraving patch" to demonstrate how the images are checked for clarity. It's the acorn pattern in bilious green: "These are struck using whatever ink is lying around. We don't look at colors, but at the details in the engravingsharp lines in the background and everything in register," she explains. "Here, can you see this white edge around the acorn? We don't want that. And in this paisley, you can see it's heavy and chunky here."
When all was approved, the printers started up and Corsini, Parrish and Brooks-Myers flew to South Carolina for the "strike off." The copper rollers spun in their drums of ink, and yards of fabric climbed ceiling-high on the machines' assembly of belts and cylinders to spill out in colorful folds, echoes of the fabric that had been printed in another century, using the same antique processes.
"The rapidity with which the fabric was sucked into the machine and then came out in waves of soft cotton, in patterns with which I was so familiar, was amazing," Brooks-Myers recalls. "We went to work checking registration and colors. I was in my element, looking at minutiae." The pinhead-size white squares in the box plaid were off-size, so it went back for adjustment; the brown floral had a slub that needed to be fixed. The team worked for sixty-two hours, existing on baked potatoes, cat-naps and adrenaline. Fortunately, the curator adds, "I was working with people as committed to textiles, and as goofy about soft goods as I, which made it a nice collaborative relationship."
A year after unfolding those old quilts, Brooks-Myers holds swatches of bright cloth in her hand, the second generation of a few pioneers that made an arduous journey west. P & B Textiles has a group of fabrics ready for life as pillows or placemats or pajamas or, of course, a new quilt stitched to last a hundred years or so. And anyone who loves the past can run the feel of it through their fingers and daydream about the stories held in each bit of woven thread. Brooks-Myers reflects on the woman who went shopping 150 years ago and chose an armful of yard goods that endured, prompting us to appreciate again the taste and sensibility of another era.
"I'm pleased that these fabrics will exist again so contemporary quilters will have them to use in their own way," she says. "If you believe in reincarnation, imagine the possibilities: you could come back today and buy a bolt of fabric you couldn't afford before."
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