May 22, 2014

Crazy Quilt Saga - History

This quilt is a family heirloom, made by the great-grandmother of the current owner.  My thanks to the family for sharing their ancestor's story, and thereby the story of this quilt.

The quilt was made by Angela MacGregor Coutts Lewis.  Angela lived from November 20, 1871, to April 29, 1947.

Angela Coutts was originally from Tilbury, Ontario.  She came from a wealthy upper middle class family.  Her father may have been a member of the Canadian Parliament.  All of the girls were educated and attended a finishing school run by the Ursuline sisters.  Fancy needlework was a subject taught at ladies' finishing schools, and family history relates that the quilt was made there at the school.  Needlework of all sorts was a skill that young women were expected to master before marriage, not only for creating decorative pieces like this, but also for making and maintaining all of their family's clothing and household linens.

She was married to James Edward Lewis (born May 4, 1869 - died May 19, 1961) on February 3, 1904 at St. Francis Xavier Church in Raleigh, Ontario.

After the marriage, they moved westward to Kitscoty, Alberta.  The family history is that they traveled by covered wagon, and shot and ate a lot of ducks along the way.  I looked up Kitscoty, and found that the settlement of the area began in 1905, which means that Angela and James were among the first Canadian families to set up households there.  The village was incorporated in 1911.

Presumably, then, this quilt made the journey with them.  Women who moved so far from home have written in their diaries that quilts like this were such special mementos that they were afforded a bit of the precious space in the cramped quarters of their covered wagons.

Another little sidelight I read is that the town is named after an ancient burial chamber, a cromlech marked by four large stones, called Kit's Coty House in Kent, England.  (One large stone is balanced on three standing stones, alá a mini-Stonehenge.) This is an indication of the heritage of those early families.

Angela and James had three children, Margaret, Gordon, and Angela, the owner's grandmother, born in 1907.

The Victorian style of home decor included lots of doo-dads and decoration.  The love for crazy quilts like this was part of that style.  This one has many of the hallmarks of the era and style:  fancy fabrics, embroidery, the ruffled edge, and hand-painted designs.  This quilt is notable for more painted fabrics than I usually see.

Here's some of the embroidery, the one on the lower right being made with a white, woven ribbon or tape.

The damage to the silk fabrics is what is called "shattered silk."  The technology of silk production at that time included both the addition of metallic salts to the fabric to give it weight and rustle, and also the use of some metal salts in the dyeing process, especially with browns and blacks.  Over time, these metals have damaged the fibers.  Sadly, there's not a lot to do to stop the process, except keep the quilt out of strong light, in as constant humidity and temperature as possible, and handle seldom and very carefully.

Thanks to the family for sharing their quilt and its story with me, and now with you.

Details of how the repair work was done are in another post.

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