Recently at a Pierceton antique shop I came across two identical satin whole cloth medallion quilts: blue on one side and yellow on the other with a scalloped edge. The tag stated they were silk but my eyes and touch told me they were satin most likely made in the 1920s or 30s – not in the 1800s. Whole cloth quilts came back into fashion as a response to the extravagance of the Victorian Era. The Arts and Craft Movement that followed called for a more simpler line and style. In 1932 the U.S. was celebrating the bicentennial of the death of President Washington heralding in a colonial period where quilting and other traditional arts were once again favored along with more tradition patterns and styles like the whole cloth quilt. The Great Depression was also underway championing such virtues as thrift and making do.
The term “Whole Cloth” is often a misnomer. Whole cloth quilts have been made for centuries on small looms not wide enough to create the entire front and back in one piece. Strips would be made and sewn together to create the quilt top much like the making of coverlets in my previous article. A medallion quilt would feature a centerpiece with additional quilting surrounding it.
Wanting to learn more about my twin beauties I search the website of the International Quilt Study Center and Museum, University of Nebraska, Lincoln. With over 4500 quilts in the collection, I set my search terms for “Whole Cloth” and find two similar to mine: Both circa 1930 and both made by the Eleanor Beard Studio. I’m directed to a website by textile history/quilt studies student Holly Zemke and there the history of Eleanor and the Beard Studio unfolds. It is the story of a woman who takes her husband’s raw wool, when wool wasn’t selling well, and decides to use it as batting for machine-made comforters. She thinks there is more money to be made in the comforters than the wool so she heads to New York City in search of buyers. A department store buyer informs her the machine-made prototypes are commonplace and suggests she try to have them hand-stitched to set them apart from the mundane. She takes his advice.
Starting with three local women, she teaches them advanced needlework techniques to enhance their distinctive work. At its zenith the company employs over 1000 women and the quilts are carried in shops in major cities like New York, Chicago, and Pasadena. A woman’s business for women, it draws many women to the shops to purchase, gather and socialize.
After Eleanor dies in 1951 the studio is sold a few times and in 2002 it is purchased by Leontine Linens. Although the two companies had worked closely together, it isn’t until after the purchase that caretaker Jane Scott Hodges discovers the fascinating background of the studio and its founder. Under Jane’s vision the Eleanor Beard Studio repositions itself back into a workroom of skilled artisans returning a sense of artistry and fashion to the historic line.
Soon photos of the “twins” will be in the hands of Leontine Linens staff. Hopefully they will be able to tell me if the artisans of the Eleanor Beard Studio created them. Looking at some of the examples on the website, they may very well be. Stay tuned.
To read more about the Eleanor Beard Studio go to: bit.ly/1CCO6iF.
Special thanks to Carolyn Ducey and Holly Zemke of the International Quilt Study Center and Museum, University of Nebraska-Lincoln for their invaluable assistance.
Lois Levihn is the owner of Born Again Quilts, restoration studio and quilt gallery located at 4005 South Wayne Avenue, Fort Wayne, IN. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 260-515-9446.