Four trapunto quilts arrived at Museum Textile Services this winter for conservation. Three belong to Hammond-Harwood House of Annapolis, MD, and a fourth is being donated to the New England Quilt Museum, in Lowell, MA. These wonderful examples beautifully showcase this historic style of quilting that was popular in America in the mid-nineteenth century. The quilts varied in condition, but were all treated in a similar way and exhibit a wide spectrum of this style of whitework.
Similar to other textile art such as mourning pictures, images quilted in these such as urns, cornucopias and flowers hold symbolic meaning and can tell a story. Traditionally, the threads would be moved aside with a needle from the back of the quilt and tiny amounts of stuffing or cording was pushed into the voids made by the quilting pattern. This created a raised effect that was beautiful, yet subtle. Once an area was stuffed to satisfaction, the threads at the back that had been moved aside are again worked back together to make the entry area invisible. One of the Hammond-Harwood House trapunto quilts has a more delicate backing fabric, which allowed it to be more easily stuffed.
This style of quilting is believed to have originated in Sicicly in the the 14th century, and continued to be popular across Italy and Europe through the 18th century. Immigrants brought the technique to America with them and it enjoyed popularity from the early 19th century, peaking mid-century. It became less common by the 20th century, as it was so time consuming and the country was being vastly changed by the industrial revolution. The trapunto quilt belonging to a private collector is a fine example of one made in America in 1823 and prominently has the name “Elizabeth North” across the top, possibly having been made for her as a wedding gift. It also features two urns of flowers and an overflowing cornucopia of flowers.
Cleaning discolored textiles is always rewarding, and restoring the legibility of these three-dimensional trapunto quilts is no exception. Viewers will enjoy seeing the results of conservation when the quilts are exhibited in their museums.