Caroline’s Quilt – Part 2

It took a long time to piece or appliqué a quilt in Caroline’s day.  In Traitor in the Shipyard, friends help Caroline and Rhonda complete a beautiful quilt top. In the new Caroline mystery, The Smuggler’s Secrets, Caroline presents the quilt top to her cousin Lydia:

“Oh, thank you, Caroline.” Lydia’s eyes were shining. “Sometimes this little cabin feels quite dreary. Now I have something cheerful to look at every single day.”

But the quilt itself was not complete. A quilt is like a sandwich, and the pieced quilt top was the top slice of bread.  Caroline and Lydia also needed a bottom slice of bread, which was often plain cloth.

In places with cold winters, the middle layer was usually made of wool. In the spring, farmers sheared their sheep.  It was a lot of work to clean the wool, pick out snarls, and comb out the fibers.


This 1883 painting shows a girl combing wool to remove tangles and get all the fibers running in the same direction. (Girl Carding Wool, by Maria Wilk)

Once enough wool had been cleaned and combed, the layers of the quilt could be put together. Women spread the bottom layer on a big wooden frame, arranged the combed wool, and then carefully put the pretty quilt top in place.

Then the three layers needed to be stitched together. These are called quilting stitches.


The women who made this quilt stitched straight lines through the blue and white blocks, but added a pretty quilted pattern in the open areas.

The frame was propped up at a height that was comfortable for women to sit and sew.


A Quilting Party, by Enoch Wood Perry, 1876.

A lot of stitches were needed to hold the layers together. In Caroline’s day, girls and women often invited friends to quilting bees. The work went faster, and everyone enjoyed catching up on the news while they sewed.


Quilting Bee, by Henry Mosler. It was painted about 1890, but shows an earlier time.

With luck and hard work, the quilting might be completed in a day. In the 1813 painting below, the woman on the left is removing a quilt from a quilting frame, and it looks as if a party is going to begin.


The Quilting Frolic, by John Lewis Krimmel.

Quilting bees aren’t as common as they were two hundred years ago, but  they still sometimes take place. The photo below was taken at my house in 1983, when I worked at Old World Wisconsin. My friends and I had pieced a quilt top at the historic site, but the season ended before we had a chance to finish it. It was fun, and the finished quilt was beautiful.


Whenever I see an old quilt, I wonder about the girls and/or women who made it. I know it took a lot of hours to complete, but I hope they also took joy in producing something both useful and beautiful.

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5 Responses to “Caroline’s Quilt – Part 2”

  1. Jen @ Dolls Between Us Says:

    I’m not sure if this is a “grass is greener” kind of sentiment, but an experience like this is really missing in my 21st C life. Have to think about that…

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      I suspect I like taking classes (quilting, rosemaling, wycinanki…) so much not only because I like to learn, but because I miss the social aspect of handwork like quilting I used to enjoy in the museum world.

  2. Ruth Says:

    My church women’s group meets regularly to make quilts for missions. We don’t hand quilt them, we tie them. It is a time for great conversation and a chance to get to know the other women. We share church news and family news. Last year I made my first “real quilt”, wall hanging size, that I hand quilted and entered in a quilt challenge at our National church women’s gathering. This despite the fact that I have arthritis in my hands. It was great fun to make and create (my original design)

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Ruth, how lovely that you are able to enjoy the social and charitable aspects of quilting. And also that you were able to complete your first quilt! I dug my first quilt from the closet while working on the post…it’s nothing special, but it brought back nice memories.

  3. A Reader Says:

    I’m sad we’ll never get to see Lydia’s quilt finished. But I need to know! Was Mr Pendleton in on the smuggling ring? I don’t think Fiona knows about it, even if he is – but then again maybe she’s just a very good liar…

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