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Patchwork and Progress

The invention of the sewing machine during the mid-nineteenth century changed women's lives. Godey's Lady's Book praised the sewing machine as "the queen of inventions," noting that "it will do all the drudgeries of sewing, thus leaving time for the perfecting of the beautiful in woman's handiwork."

Although the sewing machine never replaced hand quilting, women took advantage of this new technology to apply bindings or assemble blocks and backings. The quilts displayed here range from entirely handmade to combinations of machine and hand stitching to completely machine-made, showing how progress has affected the art of patchwork.

Elias Howe, Jr., and Isaac Merritt Singer
Although Elias Howe, Jr., is generally credited with patenting the first practical sewing machine in 1846, many inventors sought to improve on his basic design, leading to patent disputes. Howe's rival, Isaac Merritt Singer, received a patent in 1851 for an improved sewing machine, but Howe sued Singer for patent infringement. Singer continued to improve on his own model, adding a foot treadle for hands-free operation and a carrying case that doubled as a stand. Singer eventually settled the suit with Howe in 1854.

image of Howe treadle sewing machine
Howe treadle sewing machine, patented 1863. The machine's cabinet includes drawers for storage and a drop-leaf that extends the work surface. The ironwork stand is still relatively plain, compared to the more ornate stands that would come later.
[NSHS 4808-1]

image of Singer treadle sewing machine
Singer treadle sewing machine, patented 1890. As more manufacturers competed for the consumer's attention, sewing machines became more decorative, and cabinets offered a workspace both for sewing and family activities. Singer's innovative marketing techniques, including the introduction of the installment plan and trade-in allowances, made it easier for women to buy their own machines, thus increasing Singer's sales. Singer became the leading sewing machine brand by the 1870s.
[NSHS 8767-1265 ]

Love Apple
Love Apple or Pomegranate
1855, appliqué, pieced, cotton
Catherine Eby Miller
North Manchester, Indiana
[NSHS 10646-1]

love apple pattern
Catherine Eby Miller handmade this quilt just as the sewing machine was becoming widely available. The pomegranate or love apple pattern was popular from the 1840s into the 1860s. This appliquéd cotton quilt has six stitches per inch. Catherine's daughter, Elizabeth Sageser, brought the quilt to Chambers, Nebraska, in 1886, where it was used in a sod house.

Star and Plume
Star and Plume
1840-50, appliqué, pieced, cotton
Heimer Family
[NSHS 7827-5]

This appliquéd and pieced cotton quilt is entirely handmade, with quilting averaging eight stitches per inch. It brings to mind the idea of the "old sewing machine," a woman who stitched by candlelight, hunched over her needle, hour after hour.

Wreath of Roses
Wreath of Roses
About 1872, applique, pieced, trapunto, cotton
Philecta Underwood Bull
Watertown, New York
[NSHS 8024-713]

Wreath of Roses
Sewing machines were quite popular when Philecta Underwood Bull handmade this quilt for her granddaughter's fifth birthday in 1872. The trapunto or stuffed work technique may be the reason that Philecta chose not to use a sewing machine, as they were known to flatten the quilting. The quilting is ten to eleven stitches per inch in leaves, flowers, and parallel lines.

Baby Blocks
Baby Blocks
1870s-1880s, pieced, silk
Kate Emerson Palmer
Omaha, Nebraska
[NSHS 7345-1]

Baby Blocks pattern
Kate Emerson Palmer made this pieced silk quilt entirely by machine. With the Baby Blocks pattern, the blocks must be shaded from light to dark to produce a three-dimensional effect. Can you find the row where she made a mistake in the pattern?

Nine Patch Postage Stamp
Nine Patch Postage Stamp with Flying Geese border
1876-96, pieced, cotton
Mrs. Herring
Firth, Nebraska
[NSHS 9487-18]

Nine Patch Postage Stamp  pattern
Before her marriage in 1896, Mrs. Herring pieced, assembled, and quilted this cotton quilt by hand, but she applied the binding by machine, an increasingly common technique during this period. The quilting is five to six stitches per inch. Mrs. Herring's quilt includes an interesting collection of late nineteenth century fabric, including 1876 U. S. Centennial fabric and a conversational print with images of tiny sewing needles.

Triple Irish Chain
Triple Irish Chain
About 1890, pieced, cotton
Unknown maker
[NSHS 9154-107]

The unknown maker hand stitched the majority of this quilt but used the "new sewing machine" to appliqué four small squares inside the corners of each solid block. The cotton blocks are hand pieced and quilted at six to eight stitches per inch, but the borders appear machine-assembled.

Pride of the Forest
Pride of the Forest
1890-1925, appliqué, cotton
Myrtle Thorpe
Norfolk, Nebraska
[NSHS 9952-1]

The date of this quilt is problematic. According to family records, Myrtle Thorpe hand pieced and appliquéd this quilt during the 1890s in her late teens, using nine to ten stitches per inch for the quilting. The use of brown fabric generally dates a quilt before 1900, however, the triangle and scallop border was most popular after 1925. There are some documented late nineteenth-century show quilts with the same border. When do you think this quilt was made?

Log Cabin
Log Cabin, Barn Raising
Late nineteenth to early twentieth century, pieced, silk, rayon?
Unknown maker
[NSHS 8756-1]

The maker of this unfinished quilt top randomly mixed hand and machine stitching to piece and assemble the blocks. The light and dark blocks form the diagonals characteristic of the Barn Raising variation of the Log Cabin design. Although most of the blocks are silk, some of the fabric may be rayon, known as artificial silk when it first became commercially available during the 1890s. The pink fabric in this block dates from the 1890s, although some of the other fabrics in the quilt top appear to be more recent. An additional thirty-two blocks accompanied the quilt top at the time of donation.

Century of Progress
Century of Progress
1933, pieced, embroidered, wool
Katie Goar Maze
Lincoln, Nebraska
[NSHS 6168-1]

Century of Progress patternIn 1933 Sears, Roebuck, and Company held a national quilting contest in conjunction with the Century of Progress World's Fair in Chicago. More than 25,000 entries vied for a grand prize of $1,200, with a special category for quilts relating to the fair's theme.

Katie Goar Maze entered this quilt made in honor of her parents, Indiana pioneers Mr. and Mrs. Tipton Goar. The center blocks are wool dyed and woven by her mother. Katie used a machine to construct the blocks and assemble the quilt. The embroidered scenes commemorate a century of change.

Kansas Troubles
Kansas Troubles
1939, pieced, cotton
Mary Belle Fisher McFadden
[NSHS 9210-178]

Kansas Troubles pattern
At the age of eighty, Mary Belle Fisher McFadden hand constructed and assembled this scrap quilt using "leftovers" and flour sacks. During the Great Depression bag companies attempted to increase sales by offering flour and feed sacks in colorful floral and geometric prints. Homemakers used the sacks to make clothes and bedcovers. The quilting averages seven to eight stitches per inch.

Flower Basket Petit Point
Flower Basket Petit Point
1942-43, pieced, cotton
Grace McCance Snyder
Lincoln County, Nebraska

Flower Basket Petit Point pattern
Grace McCance Snyder spent sixteen months piecing and assembling her Flower Basket Petit Point quilt. Entirely handmade, the quilt contains 85,789 pieces and 5,400 yards of thread. Grace adapted the basket petit point pattern for her quilt from a china plate manufactured by the Salem China Company of Ohio. German artist Wendelin Grossmann of Berlin designed the plate. After finishing the quilt, Grace wrote to the company, which gave her a complete set of flower basket dishes in response.

Grace earned national recognition for the skill and complexity of her quilts. The Congress of Quilters Hall of Fame in Arlington, Virginia, inducted her in 1980, as did the Nebraska Quilters Hall of Fame in 1986. The 1999 International Quilt Festival, held in Houston, Texas, selected Grace Snyder's quilt as one of "The Twentieth Century's One Hundred Best American Quilts."


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