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New Pathways into Quilt History written by Kimberly Wulfert, www.antiquequiltdating.com

EARLY IRISH PATCHWORK QUILTS AND TRADITIONS
by Roselind Shaw
in Belfast, Northern Ireland


I have been collecting patchwork quilts for twenty-four years. Buying and acquiring them in all kinds of conditions from various and interesting sources, encouraging my passion for the study of Irish patchwork, the needlework and the social history which surrounds them, all of which fascinate me. These quilts are historical documents, telling a story of a past life and the families who made them.



Exhibition at Lisburn Linen Museum, 2001 Signature blocks - 1895 Dble. Irish chain, 1880 Star, 1930

I come from a strong needlework background, my grandmothers and great grandmothers made patchwork quilts. My maternal grandmother Millar worked in service where the lady of the house taught her many needlework skills, which she in turn passed on to her daughter, my mother who was the village dressmaker. She is extremely gifted and talented having also made many beautiful wedding dresses in her lifetime.


In the 1950’s she kept the famous ragbag of clippings for the women of the village who gathered the scraps to make their patchwork quilts. Receiving the scraps gave them the opportunity to express their hidden talent, being artists in their own right and most importantly, providing a little extra luxury and colour in their homes when in some cases only a coat or a blanket would have covered the bed.
 
Coverlett, Hexagon patchwork, c.1895 made to brighten bedroom & look "posh" County (Co.) Tyrone, North Ireland (N. I.)




My mother tells me that her grandmother Campbell, my great grandmother, made red and white patchworks. She also made sacks from ticking, material used to cover a mattress, which she filled with chaff, worthless husks of corn. Another example of thrift and nothing wasted. The family slept on these covered with patchwork quilts.


Irish Chain, c. 1895 Co. Tyrone, N. I.







 

Embroidered Medallion Quilt All hand-made by Author in 1995 4 Irish Provinces across top, harp & shamrocks in corners,, Tower & Irish wolfhound in center. Tied with old linen buttons, green linen & cotton

When I was a small child, my grandmother Millar thought my time spent reading Enid Blyton books was wasteful. Grandmother taught me to embroider and knit. She was born in an era when young girls were encouraged to learn needlework as a form of security for the future starting with providing for the girls bottom drawer in preparation for marriage. Being able to create or make do and mend, having needlework skills was an asset to a young girl if she wanted to go into service in the big house. An example of her influence, a hand embroidered patchwork with Celtic patterns; the Irish wolfhound, an Irish Tower in the centre and the four provinces of Ireland are along the top.

My keen interest in folk art and social history combined with my needlework background has been the foundation and inspiration for my collection and the study of Irish Patchwork Quilts.

Ireland has a long tradition of making patchwork quilts. During the 18th century patchwork and quilting was introduced to Ireland by the English gentry. These ladies of high society, living on their Irish country estates, were known to have taught many needlework skills, including patchwork and quilting to those working in service, in time this craft spread to surrounding cottages, villages and towns. Ireland’s tradition of patchwork and quilting thrived and grew rapidly out of thrift and necessity. Traditionally, Irish patchwork comprise of two layers the top and the backing stitched together with wave or chevron patterns. The early patchwork introduced in Ireland were similar, it seems the Irish carried on this tradition, handing it down from generation to generation. The Irish lived in small communities on an island with little opportunity for travel. These factors helped to keep the tradition as it was. It is also thought they could not afford to line a quilt the wool would have been needed for another use.



 

"Thrift patchwork" in wool, crazy style, c. 1900 Patched in 1950s with the blue checked cotton Belfast, N.I.

 


 

Log Cabin, wool & flannel, c. 1885 Island Magee, Co. Antrim, N. I.

In mountainous, bleak and rural areas of Ireland, an old worn blanket or sheet could have been added to a patchwork giving it extra weight and warmth, looking very rough and primitive these patchworks were purely functional made from hand woven fabrics, tweeds and old suiting, they were usually tie quilted with carded sheep’s wool or roughly quilted with linen thread

The types of patchwork quilts made in Ireland were log cabin, crazy, Irish chain, signature, mosaic, frame, block, and many examples of appliqué.

Turkey red and white patchwork quilts were very common in Ulster, and were often referred to as an Ulster patchwork quilt. It looked bright and cheerful in the dark cottages with the flickering lights of the turf fires. Quite often these patchworks were hand pieced, then machine quilted, it seems the finished quilt with it’s patterns and colour were more important than the hand quilting which would have been time consuming when many other household tasks needed to be done. As not many owned a sewing machine it was prestigious to show of machine quilting, giving the impression that she was better of than she really was.

Baskets, c. 1900, wedding gift as baskets denote plenty for prosperity Hand quilted in Waves pattern, C. Down, N.I.

In the case of families who were too poor to cut up their clothes for patchwork, they would get pieces from sources such as dressmakers, travellers, shop samples, factories and linen mills. Some linen merchants had a day in the week, when they sold pieces of linen to their workers, for the purpose of making patchwork quilts. These linen pieces were often made into frame patchworks quilts that were very fashionable in Northern Ireland. There are many examples of black material appearing in Ulster frame quilts. The black material was originally used for mourning, but also during the second world war black material was used to put over windows to prevent the light getting out during the blitz, hence the name black out material, when it was no longer needed it was put to a good use.
 



From the late 1800s, Belfast and Londonderry had many shirt making factories, these shirts going all over the world as far away as Australia. As orders increased, the factories developed a system for out workers around the countryside. Due to this industry, many shirt scraps were available which were purchased at the factory shops in bags according to weight. The workers made the patchworks in their spare time and then sold them.



 
Frame patchwork, c.1940 blackout material & furnishing prints Belfast, N.I.

Stories are told about men picking up the patchwork quilts on their bicycles and selling them for the out workers around the doors, they were very popular and often referred to as The Derry Quilts, The Shirt Quilts, and The Belfast Patchwork. In Northern Ireland, it appears patchwork quilts were labelled according to their source and material rather than the patterns.





These utility patchwork quilts along with scraps from linen handkerchiefs table cloths and pyjama factories, provide a great insight into the Northern Ireland textile Industry reminding us of a by gone era. Flour bags were saved, washed and bleached to use as a back to the patchwork. During the Second World War the American army was stationed in Northern Ireland, they had their own bakery in Crumlin, Co. Antrim. The flour was shipped from America. The bags from this flour are often found on the back of Co. Antrim patchworks made in this time.


 

Shirtings in log cabin, c. 1890, Co. Derry, N. I.

Wool suiting samples patchwork, c.1920,
Banbridge, Co. Down, N. I., on the hills above the Antrim Coast on the Irish Sea




Many of the patterns found in Irish patchwork are very similar to American patterns. Nostalgic emigrants whose thoughts lay in the green fields of Ireland stitched their Irish patterns in the new world. They also sent ideas back to their homeland.
 
Photo left: Tulips, machine appliqué and quilted, no filler, Common pattern in Ire. , ancestors immigrated to PA and sent pattern home; called American quilt Ballymoney, Co. Antrim, N.I., late 1800s



 

In the 18th century, many waves of Scots Irish Presbyterians emigrated from Ulster to America. They sailed out of the ports of Belfast, Londonderry, Portrush, Newry and Larne travelling in simple wooden ships bound for many destinations in America. Pennsylvania was their favourite colony. They left an indelible mark in the society of Eastern and Western Pennsylvania. In time they experienced the cross culture of European folk art often seen on painted furniture. The European folk symbols of hearts, birds and tulips are very often found on early Ulster appliquéd quilts. On occasions, I have spoken to different families in Co. Antrim especially in the town of Ballymena, where there is a very strong descent from the Ulster Scots. They often talk about their family connections in Pennsylvania who sent quilt patterns to their grandparents.



Snowflake or Joined Hearts quilt, hand pieced
& app., machine quilted, typical pattern in Ulster, co. late 1800s



When the pattern was followed and the quilt made in Ireland it was always referred to with great pride as “The American Quilt” even though their grandmother made the quilt in Ireland, . When people left Ireland and made good in America they sent money to their families back home. There was a well-known saying in Ireland if someone did a job that was easy, they would say it was money from America. Because of this strong connection, America was very important to the Irish especially to families with Irish/American quilts. They were treasured because of the connection so far away. The quilts were  kept as the “Good Quilt” to be used only on  special occasions.




 

Floral applique, c. 1890, Cullybacky, Co. Antrim, N. I.


The period of the potato famine (1845-1849) was a turning point in Irish history when mass emigration took place taking their traditions with them. This exodus made it very difficult to leave families behind, in most cases forever. The last night at home was often referred to as the American Wake. Many emigrants carried their belongings tied in a patchwork, using it on the long journey, while others made patchworks on route. Some letters reveal that when they arrived on the beaches their quilts were washed and laid on the rocks to dry. Other letters tell that patchwork quilts were sent from Londonderry to America for wedding presents and others to the young immigrants who had just settled in the new world.
 

Large Tulips coverlett, c. 1900, hand applique, no quilting, edged in Turkey Red, Scotish/irish maker  Ballymena, Co. Antrim, N.I. 


The older generation in Ireland think it very strange to show interest in old patchwork quilts because they were made during hard times, it reminded them of doom and gloom. When people became better of and could afford to buy other bedding including the candlewick, they often burnt the old patchworks to forget about the hard times. When they look back, they think of it as being shameful to have had to cut up their cloths for patchwork quilts.





I like to try and identify where the fabrics have come from. I have on occasions come across tattered, dirty and worn quilts, which most people would look upon with distain. I like them in any condition because I have always seen beyond that. They are examples in their own right. I think of the person who made the patchwork quilt, the limited availability of fabric, the pattern used, be it naïve or artistic, the hidden talent, what motivated the maker to put it together, the admiration of how something was produced from very little or what was recycled and of course the pleasure in admiring a another persons work from days gone by.


Rectangles on the Run, c. 1900, made from many different fibers, "thrift patchwork", co. Down



Roselind is a quilt maker and historian, living in Belfast, N.I. with her husband. They have three grown sons, living in the UK. We met when she took my quilt history tour. We share similar interests and intrigue in the history of sewing techniques and quilts in the US and the UK. Thank you Roselind for sharing your knowledge and photos of your collection of Irish quilts. She can be reached a wjamesshaw@hotmail.com.

See also: The Irish Chain Quilt ~ Irish or Not? 

 

* Quilts

© 2006 - 2012 Kimberly Wulfert, PhD. Absolutely no copies, reprints, use of photos or text are permitted for commercial or online use. One personal copy for study purposes is permitted.

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