In searching for an inspiration quilt from the Civil War years, I was struck by the use of mostly subdued madder textiles in the quilt made by Celia Corwin of Orange County, NY, between 1860 and 1865, now in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Celia’s use of fabrics and layout differs greatly from another Economy block pieced quilt that I greatly admire, made in New Jersey between 1840 and 1850, housed in the collection of the Burlington County (NJ) Historical Society. The Burlington quilt is composed of a wide variety of bright dress prints (particularly those colored with Prussian blue) popular at the time of its making. The contrasting palettes of the two quilts mirror the change in taste for dress goods from the mid-1840s to the late 1850s in the United States.
Celia’s “Economy” blocks are a simplification of a true Economy block, eliminating the outer enclosing squares, in effect becoming Squares-Within-Squares. She has then set them in groups of four separated by a cross of the same fabric. In turn, each group of four is separated from one another by a polka-dot sashing, set in six rows of five block sets. Four blocks of matching fabric are carefully placed in the corners, while the rest of the blocks are randomly placed. The Burlington quilt’s true Economy blocks are set on point in thirteen rows of thirteen blocks side-by-side alternating with twelve rows of twelve plain muslin blocks set on point, giving the quilt a checkerboard effect.
While I was able to retain the spirit of the original in most of my fabric selections, I was unable to find or reproduce an appropriate pentagraph outlined polka-dot print in the madder palette for the sashings (such fabrics were produced around 1855). I found this quite frustrating, because I own a c. 1855 quilt with the exact fabric in its sashings.
I chose to replicate Celia’s block design and layout, but adapted it for paper-piecing by machine instead of hand-piecing. Celia added a good deal of hand quilting by using parallel lines in the vertical sashings and concentric diamonds where the squares spill into the horizontal and outer sashings. I greatly simplified the quilting and instead accomplished it by machine. Would Celia have machine-quilted if given the opportunity? Or, perhaps, owning a sewing machine, did she make the conscious decision to use hand techniques only?