Reading The Quilt
Dating back to 1850, Martha Jane Porter Paulk sewed her “Whig’s Defeat” quilt of white cotton and colored calico. Measuring ninety inches by eighty-six inches, the quilt is about the size of a queen size comforter. It features ten red and green full diamond designs with nine half diamonds and two quarter diamond shapes. These diamond patterns look like squares tilted on their point with concave sides that squeeze inward. The diamonds are composed of eight red triangles on the inside and eight green triangles on the outside with green three-leaf flowers on top of each diamond point. Martha sewed these small red and green triangles using a quilting technique called piecing. Here, the raw edges of the fabric face the inside, are sewn together in bands, and are then joined to the larger white background. The quilt also holds a framing, organic, floral design along three edges of the quilt. An intricate winding green vine holds fourteen pink flowers and thirteen sets of three red blossoms, meandering along the quilt and waiting to bloom. These flowers have been appliquéd, which means the sewer turned the edges under and applied the shapes with tiny hand stitches. This process is grueling and takes significantly more time than piecing because the quilter is working on the surface, which is to say each stitch needs to be even, flawless, and ideally invisible. On average, women who quilted made eight to nine stitches per inch in their sewing. This means Martha’s quilt holds upwards of 69,660 stitches! But that is not all. This count only considers the figural details. The white background of the quilt is itself riddled with sewing patterns, which appear only if you look close enough. Random, intrinsic designs weave through the white cotton and provide it with texture and depth, adding a secret hidden layer filled with the quilter’s time and talent.
The War of 1812 greatly restricted the availability of domestically-printed cotton fabrics.
After the war, trading problems with England lessened, and affordable fabrics became much more readily available. Notice how the white backcloth of our quilt has turned a slight yellow through use and oxidation. While the chalky background of the quilt is made of cotton, the printed and colored shapes came from calico fabrics. The calicos Martha picked are either plain, floral, or dotted. With a large family to clothe, these colored materials could have been scraps from dresses Martha made for her daughters. Calico originated in the eleventh century in southwest India, made by native weavers known as caliyans. Calico, a form of unbleached cotton, is usually fairly inexpensive because it is not fully processed. Factory workers created calico through roller printing, a technique made available during the Industrial Revolution. Roller printing machines improved the speed and efficiency of the calico production, which made the colored fabrics more affordable. Calicos are often referred to as plain calico because of their simple weave, which is not as strong or thick as other fabrics, such as percale, a more tightly woven material. Calico’s economical and practical beauty has made it into one of the most popular fabrics for quilting to this day. In addition, Martha would have used cotton thread for her stitches since it was the cheapest option over linen and wool threads.
Quilting as a Political Expression
Political statements through sewing date back to the sixteenth century with needlewoman Mary Queen of Scots. Mary’s most famous piece was a wall hanging known as Virescit Vulnere Virtus, which means “virtue grows strong by wounding.” This tapestry served as a political complaint and a “threat to Elizabeth’s sovereignty” (Jones and Stallybrass 154). This tradition then continued into the age of the Renaissance where increasingly more women made their voice heard through their sewing in that they “plied the needle to materialize their views of the world and to be remembered as makers of objects that commemorated themselves, their families and their country’s triumphs” (Jones and Stallybrass 170).
Martha’s sewing of her politically-loaded quilt was a response to the presidential election of Democrat James Polk over Henry Clay, a Whig, in 1844. The Whig Party formed in 1834 as an opposition to Democrats. They favored modernization and supported the supremacy of Congress over the President. While Whigs were not antislavery, many abolitionists and free blacks preferred them to the highly proslavery Democrats. Quilters in the nineteenth century also saw Civil War quilts denouncing slavery or rallying for troops as a way to utilize their domestic duties for a cause. These quilts had intellectual and political purposes and worth beyond their function as a pragmatic bed covering. For once, women also had a chance to “speak” through their stitches. It was not until August 18, 1920, that the 19th Amendment of the Constitution finally became ratified, giving women the long-awaited right to vote after nearly a 70-year battle. Women’s suffrage campaigns had gained momentum in the 1840s, especially around the time of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. During this convention, organized by women’s rights activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, the 19th amendment was drafted and began to take off. American women had been frustrated over what was called the “Cult of True Womanhood,” or the belief that a woman’s place was in the home and taking care of the family. After World War I, Carrie Chapman Catt headed the National American Woman Suffrage Association; women had been working in factories during the war and this group specifically talked with President Woodrow Wilson about gaining equality for female politicians. President Wilson gave his support by saying, ““I regard the extension of suffrage to women as vitally essential to the successful prosecution of the great war of humanity in which we are engaged” (“19th Amendment,” 13). The amendment passed less than a year later with a Congress vote of 304-89 and a Senate vote of 56-25. Martha’s home of Arkansas became the twelfth state to ratify the 19th Amendment. On November 2, 1920, over eight million women throughout the United States exercised their new freedom of voting for the first time (“19th Amendment,” 17).