Quilt Happening features sampler from Civil War era

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By Shirley Murtha

The 27th annual Summer Quilt Happening at Lost Acres Orchard on August 8 featured a wonderful quilt that provided a morning of entertainment for those who attended. Many years ago, the late Polly Hall gave Ginny Wutka the charming quilt, a sampler made of 42 squares, each with its own design. Hall did not have much information about the quilt, except that from the fabric used it was probably made during the Civil War. (When no other documentation exists, quilts are dated from the time of the newest fabric present in the quilt.)

For the educational segment of the program, Wutka hung the quilt and provided a schematic diagram on which viewers could write the names of the block designs. A lively discussion ensued, with names shouted out: familiar ones such as “churn dash,” “Ohio star,” “log cabin” and “courthouse steps” as well as some unusual ones including “hovering hawks,” “honeycomb” and “pomegranate.” During the identification process, Wutka pointed out that apparently several people had worked on this quilt because the type of piecework and applique varied among the blocks, as did the quality of the stitching.

Several blocks used the same fabrics, despite having a unique design. From this, it would seem that perhaps a common source of material was provided, perhaps at a church gathering, and those interested took home some pieces to work into their contributed blocks.

At first, Wutka thought that this quilt was an example of a “potholder quilt,” one in which each 12-inch square block is finished independently and then sewn into rows with other blocks and then the rows of blocks sewn together. Closer inspection showed that this is not the case with this particular quilt, however, because the squares comprising the top and back are pieced in the traditional way rather than being whip-stitched as individiual units.

It is estimated that less than 20 Civil War-era potholder quilts have survived to this day, and most are found in New England, especially in Maine. The utilitarian quilts were made from scraps and were used to cover the wounded Union soldiers in the medical tents on the battlefields. Many soldiers were buried in the quilts, as a quilt used for one seriously ill and/or infected patient could not be used on another anyway. Quilts that did not have to be buried were used over and over until they were eventually worn out and discarded.

The sampler quilt featured at the Quilt Happening is larger than one of the utiliarian potholders. It is the size of a bed quilt and has one end finished differently than the other three sides, presumably the top end where the pillows are located. In addition, the sampler quilt represents a great deal of emphasis on different block designs, something that would not be desirable for a quilt made in a hurry and intended for medical use.

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