The first method for printing repeated patterns used a block carved with the design to deliver pigment onto the fabric. This is labor intensive because the color has to be repeatedly applied to the block, and the block has to be to meticulously lined up to continue the pattern. In the United States, woodblock printing generally gives way to roller printing by the beginning of the 19th century in both single- and multi-color patterns. Invented at the end of the 18th century in England by Thomas Bell, roller printing could deliver continuous pigment to bolts of plain cotton, imitating the popular Indian designs of the time. John Hewson is credited with bringing the process for printing “calico” to Philadelphia shortly after, where it spread throughout the Eastern seaboard.
The first reasons to date the fabric in this quilt to the third quarter of the 19th century are the many different geometric and floral designs on the fabrics, including squares, rectangles, stripes, and circles. Quilt historian Ellen Jahnke Trestain explains that geometric shapes line up easily while printing, making them an economical choice for manufacturers of fabric for fashion and home décor. Plaids and stripes, as well as paisley prints, reflect the popularity of Queen Victoria, and the continuing influx of fabrics from India and other eastern British territories.
This quilt has an overall warm tone with browns, reds, and yellows, which are typical of the period of 1860 to 1880. Browns were obtained from widely available materials including walnut hulls, clay, madder, onion skins, and wood chips. Adding minerals to these dyes could create a darker brown and a black dye. Dark brown with a warm tone was achieved with manganese dye. Minerals frequently added during the dye process are know to make cotton dyed with manganese brittle and prone to losses. This effect can be clearly seen in a brown print used throughout the nine patch, exposing the cotton batting underneath. We conserved fragile blocks like these with overlays of sheer nylon net.
The quilt has many other fabrics in this color range. Colors like red and other copper tones, were derived from the madder plant, Rubia tinctorum. It is clearly distinguishable from a later red dye, alizarin crimson, which is a purer, rosier red. Blocks with yellow background or print could have been dyed with cadmium yellow, which took over as the most popular dye during the 1840s.
By the end of the 1820s, all of New England was participating in the industrial revolution, fueled by textile production. The textile mills could produce the in fashion prints quickly and keep up with the trends. The largest textile center in Maine was in Lewiston, where factories like the Bates Mill spring up along the Androscoggin River. Although we don’t know for sure where the materials in this quilt came from, we have reason to believe they date to the third quarter of the 19th century.