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Researching Signature Quilts
By Amanda Sikarskie and Marsha MacDowell, Karen Alexander and Nancy Hornback

The Signature Quilt Project is an effort to facilitate the documentation of quilts with multiple signatures and to make this information freely accessible through The Quilt Index for research and education. In the process of developing this project, the Signature Quilt Project team identified and answered a number of questions that guided the definition of a Signature quilt for this project, reviewed and assessed the existing literature about Signature quilts, and discussed selected tools that would be beneficial to those interested in researching Signature quilts. The following text provides an introduction to Signature quilts, a critical review of the existing literature, and, to assist those researching Signature quilts, an introduction to sources for researching names and a summary of questions and definitions pertaining to Signature quilts.

About Signature quilts

Signature quilts -- those that carry multiple signatures or names inked, stamped, embroidered and otherwise inscribed -- are important primary historical documents that are of great interest and value for research in many disciplinary areas. In some cases, Signature quilts are the only material evidence that documents the names of individuals who have a relationship to each other.

Historians, genealogists, cultural anthropologists, sociologists, and art historians are among those who use Signature quilts in studies, for example, of family and community histories, social and kinship relationships, and economic, religion, political, and organizational histories.

Writing words on quilts has a long history. Based on the material evidence provided by extant quilts, the practice of writing on quilts is known to have occurred, albeit infrequently, before 1800. During this period writing on quilts was usually either the single name of the maker or the person for whom it was made.

According to quilt scholarship as of the early 21st century, the tradition of placing multiple signatures on a quilt became popular in the 19th century, especially when American quiltmakers used this as a device in raising funds for a variety of causes. In brief, these Signature quilts carried the names of each person who had given money to the cause being championed by the group making the quilt. Other popular quiltmaking traditions that incorporated multiple names on a quilt included Friendship Quilts, Album quilts (often made for a family or community member who was moving away), and Presentation Quilts (made to honor a special person in the community). All forms of these quiltmaking traditions that incorporate multiple names are traditions that continue into the 21st century.

Defining the elements of a Signature quilt

There are two very broad categories when one thinks about "signatures" on quilts: (A) mere names on quilts and (B) actual signatures on quilts. The Signature Quilt Project strives to document quilts in the latter category where individuals actually provide their own signatures or at least knowingly participated in the quilt. In addition, for this project, a Signature quilt is thus defined as one that carries one or more of the following:

  1. The signature of the maker,
  2. The name of person for whom it was made,
  3. Signatures all done in one good cursive hand and not actually signed by participants but with participants' knowledge,
  4. Signatures all done in more than one good cursive hand but not actually signed by participants,
  5. Signatures done in more than one good cursive hands with some names actually signed by participants, and
  6. Friendship quilts of one kind or another - all "real" signatures by participants.

In addition, the Signature Quilt Project strives to gather data on those quilts, often made as fundraisers, where some individuals signed a block; some gathered the names and donations but the signatures on a block are all stitched in one cursive hand; and some folks didn't even know their name was on the quilt because someone else paid to have another's name on the quilt without their knowledge.

One category of quilts that hold mere names and are not considered part of the Signature Quilt Project are those with multiple names with no knowing participation by those whose names are featured on the quilt (for example: baseball quilt done by a Chicago fan using photos from the newspaper with the player's name stitched underneath his image that was worked in redwork but with players having no knowledge of the quilt or the commercial patterns such as the Presidents series with their names underneath on each block),

Using Online Genealogical Databases and Forums in Signature Quilt Research

One of many strategies for conducting research on a Signature quilt is typing the name(s) into a genealogical database or searching for the family name(s) in an online genealogical forum. Most genealogical databases and forums can help you build a family tree, by connecting the name you know to the person's parents and/or children.

There are many genealogical databases and forums out there. Two of the most popular, Ancestry.com and Genealogy.com require a paid account to access most of their features. Genealogy.com's GenForum, is a good tool for Signature quilt research because it allows users to view and search posts made by others in a forum dedicated to a single family name. This free online tool is used by both lay and professional scholars in their own research.

Taking one of the quilts in the Quilt Index Signature Quilt Project, Philena Cooper Hambleton's Quaker Friendship Quilt, as an example, if one types 'Hambleton' into the "forum finder" search box on the GenForum website, one is directed to the Hambleton Family Genealogy Forum at http://genforum.genealogy.com/hambleton/. Here, there are discussion threads on the origins of the Hambleton family in Staffordshire, England, and even a thread called "Benjamin Hambleton Family Ohio & Iowa 1800s" posted by Lynda Chenoweth, quilt scholar and author of Philena's Friendship Quilt: A Quaker Farewell to Ohio. As an example of the kinds of research inquiries one can make on GenForum, Chenoweth wrote,

I am writing a book about a Quaker friendship quilt made in Columbiana County, Ohio in 1853. The quilt lists seven children of Benjamin and Ann Hanna Hambleton: Rachel, Osborn, Levi, Joel G., Catherine, Thomas C. and Martha K. I have researched the family in Ohio and Iowa and have a lot of information about them as well as Chalkley Hambleton's genealogy of the Hambleton family published in 1887. But, I have no photographs of any of them. If there are any family members out there who have photographs of these Hambletons and/or their spouses, please get in touch with me.

In this case, the researcher knew the names and relationships of the people named on the quilt, but looked to the online genealogical research community for photographs of the family named on the quilt.

Another useful resource in Signature quilt research is FamilySearch.org, a free genealogical database provided by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It is available to anyone online; no subscription is required. The database features searchable pedigrees added by other researchers, as well as some nineteenth century U.S. Census data and the data of the International Genealogical Index. There are also resources on doing African American genealogy, including Freedman's Bank Records and informational video presentations from the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society available at http://www.familysearch.org/eng/default.asp?page=home/welcome/site_resources.asp.

When searching for a woman's name in any of the online databases, it is crucial to search for both the first name with the maiden name and the first name with the married surname. Philena Cooper Hambleton, the woman for whom the farewell quilt from Ohio to Iowa was made, can be found on FamilySearch.org by searching for both 'Philena Cooper' and 'Philena Hambleton.'

The record generated for her as Philena Cooper is an International Genealogical Index record. It gives basic information, including her husband's name, Osborn Hambleton, and her birth date and place, 13 September 1822, in Columbiana County, Pennsylvania. While there are a great number of records for women named Philena Cooper (this is the peril of researching common last names), we know that this is the correct person because in the search on GenForum, the birthplaces in Columbiana County match. There is a discrepancy between birth state, however-was it Columbiana County, Pennsylvania, as this record indicates, or Ohio, as we learned in the GenForum? Looking at list of modern-day Pennsylvania counties online, this discrepancy is easily cleared up; there is no Columbiana County in Pennsylvania today. However, the county does lie on the Pennsylvania border. Such geographic mix-ups happen often in records from the period. Discrepancies of all kinds in genealogical records are very common, and can often be dispelled or explained with some historical background; take them with a grain of salt.

The record generated for our quilter with her married name, as Philena Hambleton, is an 1880 United States Census record. This type of record gives a bit more information, including Philena's gender, birth year (1823), birthplace (Pennsylvania), age as of 1880 (57), occupation (keeping house), marital status, race, the name of her husband-the head of household (Osborn Hambleton), and her mother's and father's birthplaces (Pennsylvania). We can be reasonably certain that this is indeed the Philena Hambleton that we are looking for (and not some other Philena Hambleton) because of her age and the census place, Sugar Creek, Poweshiek County, Iowa. Again, the birthplace is given as Pennsylvania, although we know that the place in which she was born is in modern-day Ohio.

Incidentally, there is one additional record for a Philena Hambleton on FamilySearch.org, but this is obviously not the woman named on the quilt for two reasons. First, this other Philena Hambleton was born in 1871, after the making of the quilt, which dates to the 1850s. Second, this other Philena was born in Missouri, and a move from Missouri to Ohio and then to Iowa would not quite make much sense given the migration patterns of the period. The middle nineteenth century was a period of intense westward migration, not northeastward migration.

Using either genealogical forums or databases to research names found on Signature quilts can be incredibly fruitful and rewarding. However, to do successful research in these online environments, it is good to keep in mind some basic principles illustrated by the searches for Philena Cooper Hambleton:

  • Make sure that you search all possible names. When searching for a woman's name, do two separate searches, one for the maiden name and one for the last name.
  • Don't be overwhelmed by a common last name such as 'Cooper.' Go through each record and look for connections to information that you already know.
  • When faced with a discrepancy, look to trustworthy outside sources, as with the list of Pennsylvania counties. Take discrepancies in places, dates, and spellings of names with a grain of salt.
  • Make sure that once you have generated search results, that you are looking at the record for the correct individual. Take things like birth year or age, place of birth and place of residence into account.

Here are some additional references that might be of interest as you begin using genealogy in Signature quilt research:

  • An excellent general resource for beginning genealogy is Emily Croom's Unpuzzling Your Past: The Best-Selling Basic Guide to Genealogy
  • Gilda Bryant has written an article, "Clues in the Quilting," about doing genealogical detective work using Signature quilts that might be helpful as you begin your search.
  • Besides using Signature quilts to learn about your family's past, you might want preserve current family history with a Signature quilt. Edith Wagner's article from Genealogy.com discusses creating reunion Signature quilts for posterity:

Review of Literature on Signature Quilts

Since about 1985, there has been a growing body of literature on Signature quilts. This literature includes books and articles by university academics, independent quilt historians, genealogists and quiltmakers and ranges from the general, surveys of Signature, Album or Friendship quilts, to works on a specific variety of Signature quilts, such as Fundraiser quilts, to works presenting research on a single Signature quilt, such as Lynda Salter Chenoweth's Philena's Friendship Quilt: A Quaker Farewell to Ohio (2009).

Books:

One of the key general works on Signature quilts is quiltmakers' Pepper Cory and Susan McKelvey's The Signature Quilt: Traditions, Techniques and the Signature Block Collection (1995). The Signature Quilt is a great starting point for background information on the Signature quilt tradition in the United States, as well as ideas for creating contemporary Signature quilts using historic techniques and practices. The book begins with historical background on the Signature quilt form, including an excellent pictorial history, and then covers many of the techniques of creating Signature quilts both in the nineteenth century and today, including signing techniques, color strategies, and information on making Signature quilts in groups. The second half of the book, "The Signature Block Collection," focuses on quiltmaking, rather than quilt history, presenting patterns and tips for signing fifty unique block patterns well suited for Signature quilts.

Quilt scholar Barbara Brackman's classic Clues in the Calico is a very important introduction to researching quilts generally. In this book, besides providing historical background on quiltmaking in America, Brackman introduces a method for dating quilts, an important aspect of Signature quilt research when no date is inscribed on the quilt, or when the date refers to an event other than the making of the quilt. Her method is based upon analyzing fabric, style, color, technique, and pattern.

Other general works of interest include Jacqueline Marx Atkins' Shared Threads: Quilting Together Past and Present, which looks at quilts made in all kinds of group settings, including, but not limited to, Signature quilts, and Forget Me Not: A Gallery of Friendship and Album Quilts by Jane Bentley Kolter.

Works on Signature quilts from a specific state or region can be very useful when researching a particular family or a local or regional technique or tradition. This sort of research is often published as a chapter in a more general book on the quilts of a particular state or region. Examples of local, state and regional Signature quilt scholarship include:

New Jersey:

  • Rachel Cochran, Rita Erickson, Natalie Hart and Barbara Schaffer, "Signature Quilts for Friends and Family," in New Jersey Quilts, 1777 to 1950
  • Rita Erickson and Barbara Schaffer, "Characteristics of Signed New Jersey Quilts, 1836-1867," in On the Cutting Edge
  • Jessica F. Nicoll, Quilted for Friends: Delaware Valley Signature Quilts
Ohio:
  • Ricky Clark, George W. Knepper, and Ellice Ronsheim, Quilts in Community: Ohio's Traditions
  • Sue C. Cummings, Album Quilts of Ohio's Miami Valley
Pennsylvania:
  • Lucinda Cawley, Lorraine Ezbiansky and Denise Nordberg, "Signature Quilts," in Saved for the People of Pennsylvania
  • Ricky Clark, "The Needlework of an American Lady / Social History in Quilts," in In the Heart of Pennsylvania: Symposium Papers
  • Marianne Berger Woods, "Signature-Fundraising Quilts," in Threads of Tradition: Northwestern Pennsylvania Quilts
  • Sue Cummings' Album Quilts of Ohio's Miami Valley (2008) is an especially good model of Signature quilt research at the county and township level, presenting information on Album quilts from Darke, Montgomery and Miami counties. The book is also lavishly illustrated.

Articles:

While books are the primary resource for general background on Signature quilts, as well as state and regional examples, articles can provide a wealth of information on a discrete and well-defined topic in the field of Signature quilt study.

Uncoverings, the journal of the American Quilt Study Group (AQSG), has published a handful of scholarly articles specifically on Signature quilts, including Barbara Brackman's "Signature Quilts: Nineteenth Century Trends." Brackman's article is particularly useful for those interested in the cultural geography of Signature quilts, or in Signature quilts made west of the Ohio. In the article, Brackman traces the development of Signature quilts from their origins in the Delaware Valley (New Jersey and Philadelphia areas) into the West. Dorothy Cozart's "A Century of Fundraising Quilts, 1860-1960" and Margaret T, Ordonez's "Ink Damage on Nineteenth-Century Cotton Signature Quilts," both also published in Uncoverings, are great resources for the study of fundraiser Signature quilts and ink used on Signature quilts, respectively. Blanket Statements, AQSG's newsletter, has also featured interesting commentary on Signature quilts, including Xenia E. Cord's "Signature Quilts" (2003). See Bibliography.

Summary

In the initial planning of the Signature Quilt Project, the project participants struggled with the very definition of a Signature quilt. In the end, we envisioned Signature quilts in a very broad possible sense-quilts that feature the name of two or more individuals. Ultimately, it is these names inked, stenciled, stamped, embroidered, quilted and/or attached to the Signature quilt that make these quilts so special.

Signature quilts give us the added benefit and challenge of being confronted with one or more names associated with the quilt, names whose identity is then sought in order to tell the full story of the quilt within its original social context. With such quilts, genealogy becomes an essential tool for the quilt scholar. Over the past century, much of the work of quilt studies, as a discipline, has been dispelling myths surrounding American quilts and replacing those notions with facts richer and more nuanced in their own way than any of the myths surrounding American quiltmaking. Researching one or more Signature quilts allows one not only to tell the true history of a quilt, but also the story of group of friends or even an entire community. Signature quilt research offers the possibility of making history come alive on many levels in far greater detail than a quilt that bears no name and has not written provenance to accompany it.

Finally, it is important to note that we could not find a definitive scholarly book devoted solely to analyzing the overall subject of the Signature quilt. One of our hopes with this Signature Quilt Project is that it will be the catalyst for future academic inquiry into the subject, resulting in a dissertation or an academic monograph. Such work is very much needed and would be of great benefit to quilt research.

 
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