Thursday, October 12, 2017

Labeling the Past

Collecting antique quilts, quilt tops, and blocks has become somewhat of a hobby for me (Kara) in the past three years. Before I started actively searching for antique quilts, I inherited a beautifully made Turkey Red Snowball variation quilt. This beauty had been in my family for some time and was passed down to me from my aunt, along with a funny story that you can read about in Seeing Red and White.

My Turkey Red quilt

We can only suspect the maker based on some family genealogy, as there is no label or signature.  Unfortunately, the lack of knowledge about the maker and why the quilt was made is the sad story for most of my antique quilts. When the quilts were appraised, I gained a little more knowledge about the materials, construction, and age of the quilt, but it's a guessing game as to the rest of the story. How I wish that the makers of the past had labeled their quilts.

True confession time: I am a repeat offender of not labeling my quilts.

Not knowing a lot of the information about my antique quilts has been frustrating. So as not to frustrate someone in the future who ends up owning these quilts, I have been motivated to be more diligent about labeling my own quilts—the ones I make and the ones I acquire. I was asked to show my modest collection at our next guild meeting so I thought it would be a perfect time to get my act together, put my money where my mouth is, and get some labels made. 

I am in a couple of Facebook groups that focus on antique quilt fabrics and quilts, and I asked for their advice as to the best method of labeling. Based on their wisdom, it seems simplicity is the key, so I will start with the basic information of what I know and get that down first. I researched a few tutorials on the internet and here are a couple that were helpful: Label the Old and How to Make a Quilt Label. Plain muslin seemed to be a good choice for a simple label, so I cut some muslin pieces, gathered my appraisals and a micron pen, and got to work.

All set to get some labels done

Unfortunately I don't have any freezer paper at the moment, which might have helped my handwriting, but the goal was to start, so I did without. I made a lined template out of ruled notebook paper and a sharpie. My appraisal reports from Phyllis Hatcher gave me most of the information I needed. I tried to keep it simple and only include things that weren't readily apparent by looking at the quilt. I used an archival-quality micron pen for the writing, and my template helped me keep my lines straight (sort of).

Ready to be stitched onto the quilt.

One of the interesting things about this quilt is that it was damaged by bleach at some point, and my aunt—fearing her mother's wrath—fixed it with a red permanent marker.

My aunt's fix was a permanent marker!

Once the label was finished, I heat-set the ink, turned under the edges and then carefully attached it to the bottom corner with a whip stitch. It struck me as I was stitching that I was stitching on a quilt possibly made by a relative; someone who took such care with her quilting stitches. It was a bit mind-blowing. Who was this woman who hand quilted so perfectly, and why did she reverse the color on one of the blocks?

It's not fancy, but the information I have is now on the quilt.

I'd like to say I made labels for all my antique quilts in one sitting, but in the interest of full disclosure, I didn't. Starting the process was a huge step, and by next week I should have them all done. Feel free to comment and ask "Kara, did you finish your labels?" We all need a little accountability in our lives.

Do you have any tips or tricks for your quilt labels? Please share so we can all be more diligent about labeling the fruits of our labors for the generations to come.


  1. I label all of the quilts I make, but I will admit that it is not always in a timely fashion. If they leave the house, they have a label! I only own a few antiques and only one has a label. Thanks for urging me to put labels on them even if they have no provenance. The chain has to start somewhere right?

    1. That's my feeling too! At least the knowledge that I have will be there for anyone who has my quilts in the future.

  2. You picked the perfect year for embarking on your labeling project! The Quilt Alliance has been asking quilters to take their "Labeling Pledge" and make a promise to label all of their quilts for future posterity. There is even going to be prizes awarded in December for doing so! You can "sign" the pledge on their website:

    This was the perfect "nudge" to get me to finally catch up on labelling the quilts that I had not done and hope it will further push you to do it too!

    1. Thank you for the link! I successfully stitched the rest of the labels onto my antique quilts. They aren't pretty but the information is there. Good job getting your labels done! Our future generations will thank us, I hope.

  3. I love this quilt and am going to start on a reproduction of it. I notice that there are some blocks that have white snowballs on the corners. I wonder if the maker was running out of red fabric. I am assuming that the blocks are about 9 inches. I too have some quilts in my possession and am not sure who in the family made them.

    1. It's just one block that is different than the rest. I wish I knew the reasoning behind why the maker did it that way. We would love too see pictures when you finish the quilt.

  4. I really likes your blog! You have shared the whole concept really well and very beautifully soulful read!
    Thanks for sharing