London celebrations

The Day – Exploring New London County’s Extraordinary Tailoring Tradition

Wander through the galleries of the Florence Griswold Museum and you’ll be surrounded by rich textiles and elaborate needlework. A vibrant orange-red quilted petticoat is embroidered with whimsical designs like a mermaid holding a mirror. A deep blue bed rug features central floral images and curled vines. White quilts feature polka dot backgrounds, with quilted and stuffed designs.

These were all made in the late 1700s or early 1800s by women in New London County – and the area was where some of America’s most notable textile folk art were created around this time, according to a new exhibit.

“New London County Quilts & Bed Covers, 1750-1825” at the Florence Griswold Museum was curated by costume and textile historian Lynne Zacek Bassett. It features quilted petticoats, bed mats and quilts, many of which are on loan from institutions across the country.

“This exhibition brings together for the first time two important groups of these prized textiles: uniquely quilted petticoats with a range of animal and maritime motifs, and embroidered bed covers. The masterful upholstered white workmanship and appliquéd bedspreads demonstrate the early 19th-century continuation of this region’s extraordinary tailoring heritage and the family ties that nurtured it,” notes the exhibit text. “High-level European design filtered down to colonial New England through pattern books referenced by artisans and through imported products, such as liner papers, ceramics, silver and of lace, inspiring regional interpretations in various decorative arts.”

Bassett says she would like visitors to the exhibit “to be excited about the beautiful art created by these women, but I also want people to see that there is a way to understand women’s history through these works.” reflecting on how women have worked together in neighborhoods and families. and the importance of social connections and what brilliant seamstresses and designers they were. This exhibit, I think, is a great showcase of American folk art.

Among the many pieces are a quilted petticoat made by Sarah Halsey of Stonington in 1758; a bed rug by Mary Hinckley West of Bozrah in 1763; and a bed rug by an unidentified maker from the Geer family of Groton in 1764.

Different sections of the show are devoted to, for example, “Montville bedspreads” and “Lyme Whitework comforters”.

But why New London County?

Why was this area such a hotbed of quilting and bed rug making? Bassett believes there was a confluence of several important factors. It was an area with relative economic stability and above-average household incomes at that time, thanks to work on the sea and in agriculture.

These women had to have home help in order to have time to devote to creating quilts and bed rugs. They had enslaved people, indentured servants, or family members to do some of the housework. Bassett notes that this was the area of ​​Connecticut with the highest proportion of slavery at the time.

But, says Bassett, “I think it really comes down to a few incredibly talented people who came up with these ideas, and the family ties that I find between this needlework are really important to consider.”

She says the patterns were often passed down family lines and even between neighbors.

Bassett was employed intermittently by the Connecticut Historical Society for about 38 years, and she was assistant curator of costumes and textiles at the Wadsworth Atheneum for a decade, but is now freelance.

Over the years, in various places, Bassett had noticed many interesting objects from New London County. She thought the quilts were an interesting story, as were the petticoats, and no one had put them together yet and thought about why this incredible work was happening in New London County.

‘Captivated my imagination’

Bassett, who lives in Massachusetts, visited the Flo Gris in 2019 to study the museum’s white quilt by Haddam’s Emily Jewett. She had found other quilts that appeared to be made in the same pattern and wanted to compare the layers of those quilts to Jewett’s. (Experts use layers to determine if quilts are from the same pattern; they look at how they’re made, the number of stitches per inch, the quality of stitching, etc.)

It turns out that the Jewett quilt was part of this same group, all from an as yet unidentified pattern maker.

Amy Kurtz Lansing, curator of the Florence Griswold Museum, recalled Bassett “talking to us about the amazing New London tailoring tradition that this quilt was part of, and I just thought: this looks like an exhibit. I’m fascinated by what she’s telling me, and I’d like to see these petticoats that she’s telling us about that have mermaids and fully rigged boats — which captured my imagination, the idea that they’re doing these embroideries that really included elements of the world around them as well as these whimsical beasts and things like that.

Lansing loves the whimsical elements and elegance of petticoats. She mentions an embroidered image of a man using a stick to knock a pear out of a tree, while a dog waits below.

“It feels like a connection to another point in time. I mean, whose dog isn’t patiently waiting for the food to drop? ” she says.

Another interesting facet: fashions changed in the early 1800s, and the new popularity of thin, sheer fashions meant that quilted petticoats could not be worn underneath. So people started using them as quilts instead.

A great discovery

The women who made these quilted petticoats needed the training and knowledge of the design sources to create them. A major discovery made by Bassett that is highlighted in the exhibit is that she identified a specific school in Newport as the source of at least 15 petticoats from the mid-1700s that feature an unusual spaced backstitch and consistency of patterns.

Lansing says, “She identified the teacher who trained these students. They had to go (somewhere) to learn these techniques.

The teacher was Sarah Osborn, who offered “reading, writing, simple work, embroidery, tent stitch, samplers, etc. on reasonable terms,” according to a 1758 edition of the Newport Mercury.

“Osborn’s correspondence with the father of one of the petticoat makers indicates that she designed sewing patterns herself; she would have used images gleaned from embroidery pattern books or animal picture books published in the previous century for inspiration,” according to the exhibit.

Carpet not for floor

As for the bed rugs presented at Flo Gris, they are not rugs in the sense that we understand it now but rather blankets placed on beds. They are not hooked rugs – where pieces of yarn are forced through the fabric – but have been embroidered with a needle, notes Lansing.

These rugs were the most common type of bedspread in colonial America, and those made here were visually more vibrant than those imported from Europe.

“New London County was a particular center for the domestic production of bed rugs. In an inventory of all known American embroidered bed rugs (63 in total), 35 originated in Connecticut – 31 from eastern Connecticut (New London, Tolland, and Windham counties). Twenty-three can be placed in New London County with a reasonable degree of confidence, including early examples,” reads the exhibit text.

It’s a family thing

The show also offers interesting insights into the families that populated this area during this time.

Bed rugs from the Foote (sometimes spelled Foot) family of Colchester, for example, are among the most renowned group of rugs here. According to the exhibit, four women about to be married made bed mats “as another demonstration of their bond of affection” with their fiancés. The four couples – each of whom had someone who was part of or related to the Foote family – were married in the same ceremony on the same day: November 5, 1778. The couples were: Elizabeth Foote and the Reverend David Huntington; Elizabeth’s sister Mary Foote and Nathaniel Otis; Sarah Otis, Nathaniel’s sister, and Israel Foote, Jr., who was Elizabeth and Mary’s brother; and Martin Kellogg and Hannah Otis, who was Nathaniel and Sarah’s sister.

During this time, the Bradford family was associated with Montville appliqué bedspreads. These bedspreads feature a unique design and needlework, with a calico print on a white background. Black phrases in cross stitch are embroidered as streamers or medallions.

Research indicates that of four of these bedspreads, made between 1805 and 1808, at least three were related to the Bradfords who lived in Montville. The fourth, found at the Tennessee State Museum, is similar enough that the theory is that it must have been inspired by a common source.

“How the idea traveled may never be known, but women often described their sewing projects and sent designs in letters to distant loved ones,” according to the exhibit.

Lansing says, “As someone who loves the stories hidden in history, I think it would be great to be able to even go deeper and try to bring together more of, you know, these women from the Bradford family in Montville, how did developed this particular type of textile? … Lynne pulled so hard on this, even finding out who these families and women were. It’s very hard work, women’s history, because you have to find the information about the women and their lives well hidden in the historical documentation of the men in the family.

wider world

Although the show is about this area of ​​Connecticut, Lansing was impressed with the all-encompassing nature of it all.

“One of the things that really struck me is how all of these designs and the themes in them and the materials that the women draw on – all of these things show the connection of this region to a global world. wider,” she says, also mentioning the Triangle Trade and people bringing indigo to the region to dye fabrics. “There are design sources in Europe, and some of them have even come from further afield. These are not people who simply live on quiet farms in the Connecticut countryside. They are part of what was already a globally connected world.

The discoveries continue

Lansing says that since the show opened, “Lynne has found and heard people talking about other textiles that relate to this, so already knowledge of these New London textiles is growing, and she’s working on a book that will come from this exhibition… so the discoveries are still active.