Thursday, September 15, 2011

Quilts and Historical Fiction

I readily admit that “it’s the history” that draws me to historical fiction. And it’s a good thing that I love history, because writing historical fiction means that before I dress, move, or feed anyone … I have to do research. I’m never happier than when I’m in my studio surrounded by piles of “dry” (to others) history books, historical documents, sepia-toned photographs, and enlargements of historical settings (see photo at right) for my current

work-in-progress I literally end up in a “nest” surrounded by ephemera and, on occasion, patchwork.

Patchwork?! Yep. I'm an avid textile geek. I adore old fabric and have several running feet of antique quilt

tops and quilts stored in a walk-in-closet just off my office. In fact, one set of quilt blocks in particular played a role in my beginning the story that became my first novel back in 1995. I’d stood in the hot sun for hours waiting for an auctioneer to sell a box of rags … because among the “rags” were some diamond-shaped quilt blocks that, had they ever been finished, would have made the center of what quilt lovers call a Blazing Star or a Bethlehem Star quilt.
It was only natural for me to imagine my heroine stitching those blocks together … and only natural for me to wonder why she never finished them. Those bits of cloth led me to take a class in dating quilts … and another class … and, eventually, a class in appraising quilts … and then another … and so it goes. I continue to have a passionate fascination with antique fabric and American quilts, and as I’ve collected quilts and tops and blocks, I’ve always wondered about the women who made them. Why, for example, did his woman cut up what appears to be a devotional book to make these hexagons? It’s a technique known as English paper piecing, but I find
myself wondering about the papers used and wondering … was she upset with God when she cut up that devotional book or Sunday School manual?
And I love "meeting" frugal women who pieced bits together to get a larger bit for patchwork. If you look carefully, you can see where the seam is on the triangle in
the center.

Over the years, as I’ve read women’s diaries and reminiscences, I’ve collected references to quilts and “comforts,” and I love including references to what historians call ‘material culture’ in my stories. In Sixteen Brides I had fun helping a woman who ran a store get rid of some awful orange fabric by marketing it as fabric that would make quilts “shimmer.” As it turns out, one woman takes on the challenge and makes a beautiful dark blue and orange quilt. I keep thinking I should try it. But I’m a quilt lover, not really a quilt-maker.

Since my books are usually set in the 19th Century on the Great Plains, I can reference quilts as bedding, room dividers, front doors and more … and I can use quilting bees as natural settings for conversation and competition among women. A courthouse steps quilt plays an important role in next year’s release with Barbour titled The Key on the Quilt.

I sometimes give a lecture called “Dress Your Beds Fashionably” that shares general guidelines for what a bed would “wear,” in a given time period, but my knowledge of quilt history helps me dress my ladies, too. The book Dating Fabrics, A color guide 1800-1960 by Eileen Jahnke Trestain includes color plates of popular fabric divided by era: Pre-1830, 1830-1860, 1860-1880, 1880-1910, and so on up through 1960. It’s a wonderful resource that helps me “see color” in my sepia-toned photograph collection.

The more I learn about antique quilts and textiles, the more I want to know. I’m fortunate to live near the International Quilt Study Center and Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska, where exhibitions never cease to inspire more questions and lead me on new quests to get to know the women behind the quilts. I never know when a new idea will spring up as I ponder patchwork.

If you’d like a copy of the hand-out I provide when I give my “Dress Your Beds Fashionably” lecture, I’d be happy to e-mail a copy. Just send your request to, and indicate “Dress Your Beds” in the subject line.

"Life is just a patchwork quilt of births and deaths and things ... and sometimes, when you're looking for a lovely piece of red, you only find a knot of faded strings ..." May your weekend bring all kinds of lovely reds!........................Stephanie

P.S. It is nearly 1 a.m. and blogger has won for today ... I apologize for the odd font sizes and margins.


  1. I'm so looking forward to reading The Key on the Quilt! I am a quilt maker and also a quilt lover. I would love to "rescue" those old textiles in antique shops and auctions. I wonder about the quiltmaker and her stories. (Sadly I haven't rescued very many.) Interesting post.
    Jan in Nebraska

  2. I find it very calming to cut and piece quilts. I finished a t-shirt quilt which I blogged about just today. I'm not much for the actual quilting but I've been doing some reading and my look at it a bit differently.

  3. Do you hand piece? I'd find that calming, too. I love hand quilting as well, but I don't like sitting at a machine. I probably won't be very prolific in my lifetime when it comes to quilt making, but that's OK. I enjoy the handwork anyway.

  4. Quilters are in my family for generations. I just couldn't break the tradition, so I've cut and machine pieced a top and then sent it to my Grandmother, Aunt Eddie (who LOVEs Stephanie's books BTW), and my cousins all did the quilting--its on my bed still, even though Grandma Emma is gone now. I cherish it. I hope my daughter will keep the tradition alive.

    We just received a very old quilt from my mother's cousin who died from cancer. The quilt is about 100 yrs old. We will try to get it to the proper side of the family to someone who will cherish it and care for it well.

    Thanks for the good source you listed!

  5. Glad you appreciated the source, Anne. What a nice mental image thinking about the family women sitting around a quilting frame together working on your quilt top! Reminds me of Charles Peterson's painting, "Grandma's Quilt." It's also noteworthy that you are hoping to help that quilt find a family home. I love stories like that . Hmmm..... a quilt story .... hhhhmmm