Civil War Quilts~Pamela Weeks to Speak at Heritage Museum

Pamela Weeks

In both the North and the South, Civil War buffs are legion. This American tragedy, now being commemorated on its 150th Anniversary, has generated research on everything from specific battles and famous leaders to social institutions. For example, in June 1861 the United States Sanitary Commission came into existence to “improve sanitation, build large well-ventilated hospitals, and encourage women to join the newly created nursing corps.” Responding to the Sanitary Commission’s requests, civilians on the home front began making quilts to send to soldiers. Thousands of quilts were sewn, though only a few exist today.

This very human side of the conflict will be discussed on October 20, 2012, at the National Heritage Museum when quilt historian and author Pamela Weeks presents “Quilts for Civil War Soldiers: Stories from the Home Front and the Battlefield.” Her program will include an overview of “the origins of the U. S. Sanitary Commission at the beginning of the War, the roles women played on the home front and the battlefield, and … the stories of fourteen actual Civil War soldiers’ quilts.”

 Saturday, October 20, 2:00 p.m.

Quilts for Civil War Soldiers:  Stories from the Home Front and the Battlefield

National Heritage Museum

Weeks, now curator at the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell, had started making quilts during the Bicentennial in 1976, but she became a quilt historian in 1999, the day she started researching a quilt that her aunt had bought at a New Hampshire auction. Weeks had been seeking and collecting signature quilts that carried the names of her ancestors who had lived in New Hampshire for ten generations. Dated 1847, her newly-acquired quilt featured stars and signatures, including her relative Sarah A. Leavitt. It was made with silk and composed of individually self-bound blocks.

The unusual, though not unknown, method of quilt construction led Weeks to ask experts about this quilt-as-you-go sewing technique. She had noted that “each block was individually bound with pale blue silk and then the blocks were closely whip-stitched together on the back.” They appeared to be “elegant eleven-inch-square potholders” fashioned into a quilt. Well-known quilt experts such as Gerald Roy, Stephanie Hatch, and American Quilt Society appraiser Vivien Lee Sayre confirmed that this “block-by-block” method (the preferred description) was informally known as making “potholder” blocks. The experts suggested more research be done on the origins of Weeks’ quilt and on the heritage of the potholder style.

The quilt above is from the collection of the Mystic Seaport Museum, made in Portland, ME in 1864 by the Portland Ladies Soldiers Aid Society. Right: Detail of one of the quilt squares.

She discovered that this potholder technique is predominantly a New England style, frequently from Maine, and often used by groups to make community-project quilts. It was the easiest way for a club or church group to make a quilt because each contributor took the instructions, worked at home, and then returned the finished block. Though it might appear this was also a quick way to make a quilt, the reality is that many such quilts made for Civil War soldiers and other reasons, such as fundraising, presentation, or friendship, took as long as a year. The earliest known potholder quilt – dated 1837 – is in the collection of the Concord Museum; other may be seen at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut and at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Her research showed Weeks that the potholder style was common during the years of the Civil War (1861-1865), as well as before and after. Noted historian Dr. Virginia Gunn estimated in 1985 that more than 250,000 quilts were made for Civil War soldiers – 125,000 were distributed by the Sanitary Commission during the war. Yet, with the impressive output, fewer than 20 quilts made for Civil War soldiers have survived today. Eleven of these were made by the potholder method. Most Civil War soldier’s quilts that have survived are inscribed with names and dates, which probably contributed to someone setting aside the cherished old quilt instead of pitching it into the trash.

In her book, Civil War Quilts (Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 2011), Weeks shares her research as she teams up with Don Beld whose interest in American history had led him to establish the Home of the Brave Quilt Project in 2004. This nationwide movement honors the fallen heroes of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars by creating handmade quilts to present to families, in an effort to show gratitude and provide a measure of comfort. Inspired by quilts made during the Civil War, Beld leads volunteer quilt-makers who construct hand-pieced quilt patterns and use 19th century reproduction fabrics almost exclusively. Their book tells the stories of selected Civil War quilts and the women who made them. Techniques and patterns for making reproduction quilts or information on participating in the Home of the Brave project blend to make this a unique tribute to the Civil War legacy.


Weeks’ free lecture at the National Heritage Museum is sponsored by Ruby W. Linn. Copies of Civil War Quilts by Pam Weeks and Don Beld will be available for purchase. Contact the Museum at 781-861-6559.

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