Thursday, May 30, 2013

Modern Color: Chambrays & Shirting Weaves

Quilt made from the Mountain Mist Sunflower pattern
mid-20th century

Marie Webster's design for her Sunflower appeared in the
 Ladies' Home Journal in 1912.

Mountain Mist began publishing a similar pattern in 1931, using Webster's solid colors and medallion format but further abstracting her naturalistic rendering of the plant. 

As I noted in a recent post Marie Webster was an important influence on 20th century quilts but her ideas had to wait until the technology for dyeing solid color cottons caught up. It isn't until the late 1920s that we start to see more reliable and more diverse solid cottons. Soon we also see more applique in the Webster style. Many pattern companies and kit companies sold interpretations of her designs, defining the "thirties quilt."

In the decades before the innovative dyes, Webster and others encouraged quiltmakers to use lighter colored fabrics, particularly solids, but where would the customer get new shades?

Quilt dated 1911

In pencil it says
Quilt made by Grandma Robertson
1911-91 Years
Grandma may have been born when Monroe was President
 but she knew what was fashionable in 1911.

Quilt dated 1912 and 1913

Chambray was one answer.
Chambray is a yarn-dyed fabric with a white warp and a colored weft. 
The darker yarns crossing the white yarn appear to be paler, one way to get a color-fast pastel.

Chambray shirts today

The blue in this log cabin dated 1921 is a chambray. The pale peach is a solid and there is no way to know what color it once was. Solid pastels tended to fade. Chambrays held their color better.
See this quilt at Rocky Mountain Quilts:

Blue chambray quilt, this one from 
Historic American Quilts' online catalog.

Another popular option: yarn-dyed stripes and plaids,
which held their color in the same way chambrays did.

Even if they fade chambrays and other yarn-dyed patterns tend to fade true to their original color rather than to a dun-colored tan, so they were a popular fabric in the teens and twenties. Not only functional but modern.

Quilt dated 1911-1912
They may not look so modern to us but
these were cutting edge 100 years ago.

You might want to read Virginia Gunn's take on shirtings and chambrays at the time in her article "The Gingham Dog or the Calico Cat: Grassroots Quilts of the Early Twentieth Century"  in the American Quilt Study Group's journal Uncoverings 2007 (Volume 28).


  1. Hello Barbara, this is another very interesting post. Please excuse my ignorance, but you tell me what 'yarn-dyed' means and what the process is? Thank you very much,
    Kate, Bristol, UK.

  2. Sorry - I missed out the 'could' !

  3. Kate-Fabric can be dyed in the yarn or dyed in the piece. For a woven pattern the weaver begins weaving with blue yarns and white yarns---she can make a stripe or a plaid. For fabric dyed in the piece the weaver begins with natural color yarns and after the fabric is woven the whole piece is dyed. Often the natural dyes for yarns were more effective and colorfast than the dyes for piece-dying or printing the fabric. Paste this link into your browser to see some one's hand-dyed wool yarns with natural dyes.