I selected the Sue Billmyer quilt (c. 1855) as my 2014 Quilt Study because I thought it was unusual and an extremely interesting transitional piece from the elegant Baltimore Album-style quilts to the Red and Green appliqué quilts. Sue’s quilt looks much like a Baltimore Album block magnified to full bed size. The classically inspired lyre and laurel motifs were very common on album-style quilts at the height of their popularity. However, in the 1850-1860 time period there was a shift away from the Classical Revival style that was previously popular in architecture and home decoration.
I was especially attracted to the very balanced and symmetrical layout of the lyres and the laurel wreath on the surface of the quilt. The triple border framed and contained it nicely. I easily reduced and reproduced the appliquéd quilt top. The description of the original on the Quilt Index mentioned free-motion quilting. Some quilts from the time period had a variety of individual motifs quilted into the background but not connected together. Others had Greek key or Baptist Fan quilting, both of which could be done as continuous line designs. The West Virginia Quilts and Quilt Makers book description hinted at something quite different.
I became curious about how the original was quilted and was able to track it down. I was stunned! The quilting on the original is an artistic, mostly continuous vine sprouting flowers, buds, leaves, tendrils, and fruit in great profusion and huge variety. Most appear to have been influenced by early Tree of Life designs. Loops of ribbon were quilted into difficult areas where vines did not reach. Only the border with its feathered vine backed by a basket-like design was familiar. I had to simplify the original designs to fit into a surface area less than one tenth the size of the original, and to be feasible for machine quilting. Trying to reproduce Sue’s exuberant, artistic, fanciful technique was the hardest quilting task I have ever tackled. It was the first time in my entire quilting career that I realized just how differently the original quilter and I approached our craft. Sue had to use both the artistic and the more structured side of her brain to design her quilt. From the exuberance of her quilting, I am convinced the quilting was as much fun for her as it was difficult and challenging for me.