Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Vintage Butterflies

Recently a friend purchased a vintage quilt top that she hoped could be finished to make a quilt.  There were twelve muslin blocks, each appliqued with four print butterflies.  The print fabrics look like those from the 20s and 30s, the ones we now buy in reproductions.  
The background fabric in the blocks was a nice heavy, closely woven muslin.  In a couple of places we could see what might have been the remains of the ink that would have been on a bag of feed or flour and we wondered if that was the source of the fabrics.  There are 48 butterflies, and we found only two fabrics repeated.  This quilter had access to a wonderful collection of fabrics! 
We noted that some of the solid fabrics used in the butterfly bodies show dark areas around the edges, almost as if the quilter had used an adhesive of some kind.  These areas feel a little stiff, but there was no obvious cracking or splitting when they were stitched through. 
Butterflies block1
Four butterflies circle on each block.
Note the dark edges on some of the solid fabrics.
21_Butterflies block2
Wonderful fabrics!  Some wing tips were
 "clipped" when they got trapped in
 the seams. 
 A group of us were eager to take on the challenge of turning the top into a quilt, but as we examined the top we realized it had a number of issues.  The twelve blocks were joined with wide yellow sashing. It did not lie flat and on inspection it was clear that there were some rather serious discrepancies in size between the rows of blocks and the sashing strips.  We decided to deconstruct the top and see if it could be adjusted a bit for a flatter effect.
As the top came apart we found several kinds of stitching had been used.  Some seams were hand done.  Others were machine stitched.  Some were machine stitched back and forth several times!   Some of the seams went through tips of butterfly wings  -- these were unstitched VERY carefully to prevent damage to the applique stitches. The original sashing strips were found to be quite faded, and even after a gentle washing they showed stains that we could not remove.  We chose to replace this fabric with a new one and were delighted to find a sunshine-y yellow that matched the original nicely.  We did not wash the blocks – we didn’t want to take a chance on any of the colours running.
First step was to square up the blocks.  This was harder than we expected.   The blocks had been torn from the original fabric and while this meant all the grainlines were nice and straight it did not prevent a bit of skewing.   Many of the appliques were very close to the edges of the fabric leaving little room for adjustments. 
We gave up on square and settled for straight.  Blocks were trimmed to the largest possible dimensions and we were delighted when one of them came out the same size in both directions!  We then grouped them, putting three blocks that shared a size in one direction into each row.  Widths of the sashing strips varied to make the rows work out to the same length.  We kept the sashing strips fairly wide so that differences in block sizes would be less apparent.
As we worked we marvelled that the original quilter had managed her job with none of the tools we were using.  Yes, the blocks were uneven, but she had no acrylic rulers, no rotary cutter, no large gridded mats to help.  We wondered what it would have been like trying to make these blocks using a yardstick on the kitchen table!
The re-assembly of the quilt went quickly.  Then borders were added.  The green print is a reproduction that suits the other fabrics well. 
21_butterfly quilt
Finished quilt is 73" by 93" and is ready to be used on a bed.
First idea for quilting was to stitch around each butterfly to make it stand out. However, we could see that the raw edges under the blanket stitch applique  were fraying a little, so we chose an all-over pattern. Not true to the era, perhaps, but this will hold the butterflies in place.
We don’t know who made this quilt top.  The blanket stitch applique is done with three strands of black floss.  The stitching is quite consistent from block to block, so we guess that it was all done by one person.  Did the same person do both the applique and the assembly, or was it perhaps a multi-generational project?  When it arrived the top had a border down one long side only and this looked like it might have been folded over and top-stitched.  The whole piece had been hemmed – a small amount of fabric turned to the back and machine-stitched down.  Was it perhaps used as a curtain? – that might account for the fading we saw. 
Though we know little about the quilt’s previous life, we do know that it is now ready for a new one! 
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1 comment:

Betty Copping said...

What an undertaking! The end result is absolutely beautiful! Well done ladies.!