Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Christmas Quilts

A footnote from history by Stephanie Grace Whitson

My "Christmas quilts" on a
farm ladder.
I often pull out the reds and greens from my antique quilt collection when it's time to decorate for Christmas. And I've wondered ... how is it that red and green came to be associated with Christmas in America? 

As it turns out, the Victorians used many different color palettes for Christmas greetings and decorations. But in 1931, Coca-Cola hired an artist to create a memorable image of Santa Claus for an ad campaign, and the rest is history. Haddon Sundblom's fat, jolly, white-bearded Santa dressed in bright red took hold in American culture. 

Holly with it's red berries had already been part of Roman winter solstice celebrations. The color combination seen in nature is pleasing to the eye, and those who own beautiful antique red and green quilts often display them at Christmas. 

A four-block 19th century
applique quilt.
Stephanie Whitson's
personal collection
The story of red in the textile industry is one filled with intrigue. Fabric dyers in India and Turkey were the first to discover a laborious process that produced an intense, colorfast red, and fabric dyers in Europe wanted the recipe, because demand for red was raging. (The term "Turkey Red" doesn't refer to the color itself but rather to the process developed in the Levant--a process that produces an intense colorfast red.) Of course those who knew the secret wanted to keep it. Espionage is part of the story, but finally European manufacturers perfected the time-consuming process that involved multiple steps, could take weeks to complete, and required almost constant attention. In 1786, an English dyer described that process this way:

  • Boil cotton in lye of Barilla or wood ash
  • Wash and dry
  • Steep in a liquor of Barilla ash or soda plus sheep's dung and olive oil
  • Rinse, let stand 12 hours, dry
  • Repeat steps 3 and 4 three times
  • Steep in a fresh liquor of Barilla ash or soda, sheep's dung, olive oil, and white argol.
  • Rinse and dry.
  • Repeat steps 6 and 7 three times.
  • Treat with gall nut solution
  • Wash and dry
  • Repeat steps 9 and 10 once
  • Treat with a solution of alum, or alum mixed with ashes of Saccharum Saturni
  • Dry, wash, dry
  • Madder once or twice with Turkey madder to which a little sheep's blood is added
  • Wash
  • Boil in lye made of soda ash or the dung liquor
  • Wash and dry
Colorfast green presented challenges, too. Mixing blue and yellow might yield a nice green ... but over time, if the yellow faded, the green would give way to blue. Hence, many antique quilts have vines sporting blue leaves. Synthetic green dyes developed in the 1870s faded to khaki or dun. You can see that in the central block of a once red-and-green quilt I purchased many years ago because I fell in love with the overall design and form. Of course I planned at the time to copy the quilt and show what it would have looked like originally. That's never happened, but I still adore this quilt for what I see in my minds' eye every time I look at it. 
Christmas table topper made by
Stephanie Grace Whitson

Of course quilters today don't have to worry about fading ... right? Wrong. I've worked with red fabric from which the dye bled until it had been washed numerous times. I know more than one quilter who made a gorgeous red and white or red and green quilt, only to have the reds bleed and turn the quilt pink in the wash. Quilters beware!

Do you decorate with red and green for Christmas or do you prefer another color scheme? 

Whatever your color choice, I hope you and yours have a wonderful Christmas!


Stephanie Grace Whitson has been writing Christian historical fiction full time 
since the 1990s. She loves incorporating quilts and quilting into her stories. Her novella in the Basket Brigade Christmas collection features the women of a Ladies Aid Society who sew for wounded warriors during the Civil War. 

Find it here:

Learn more about Stephanie's books here:

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  1. Fascinating post! I never realized how hard it was to produce the intense colorfast fabrics we cherish. I am sure the process is easier now, but I also am aware of having to prewash the fabric when quilting or sewing. Thanks for this information, very interesting!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Connie. I'm always interested in how processes were developed over the years ... and the history of textiles and dying is one of my favorites to learn about.

  2. Great post about Christmas quilts and the history of the colors. The display of your Christmas quilts is unique and beautiful I use blues with other colors for Christmas.

    1. I like the blues, too! In fact, my Christmas "tablecloth" is yardage of dark blue with silver sparkles ... That display of quilts is on a farm ladder I've had for years. I make sure to cover the wood before draping the quilts, because there are remnants of red barn paint on the ladder.

  3. You always have the most interesting information in your posts! Thanks.

  4. Wow! With all that's involved, it's amazing they ever discovered how to make red. I have several cherished quilts that my great-grandmothers made, and I have a collection of seasonal quilted wallhangings and table covers that I change out every month or so.

    1. I seem to leave things out long after the official season is past ... but it's fun when I do. To have quilts your great-grandmother made ... WOW!

  5. Thank you for sharing your very interesting post.