It's only natural that baskets have been used in a myriad of quilt patterns from the those reduced to the most fundamental forms to realistic reproductions even including the weaving and detailed floral arrangements.
Probably the earliest quilts using baskets were whole cloth quits. These quilts were not pieced, instead a solid piece of fabric was used and the overall quilting became the focus of interest. Sometimes these containers and other motifs were stuffed to give the object a three dimensional look.
You can imagine how such a quilt would show off the fine sewing skills of a woman. In early America these were made by those of the upper classes. Other women had no time for such endeavors.
Another form of quilting in early America was that of broderie perse. In this method of decorating bedcoverings printed chintz flowers and other motifs were carefully cut out from a piece of printed fabric then appliquéd to solid fabric. The cost of the lovely prints was high as fabric imported from India was highly taxed by the British. Even the wealthy used these fabrics in a frugal manner. This container was often the central theme in these quilts.
An example of such a quilt made in Maryland about 1800 involves both themes. The basket is the base for a tree of life adorned with leaves and flowers. Two birds typical of the fabric of this time sit below the gazing at it and a garland of flowers and leaves surround it all. That is then surrounded by several wreaths, flowers and birds. 2 As you can imagine the container becomes the root of all this, a symbol of home and womanhood.
What I've described above is an example of a medallion style quilt with a large central figure surrounded by pieced or appliquéd decorative items. While broderie perse required printed fabric to be cut out and appliquéd plain fabric could also be used to create baskets and their contents.
This motif was popular for these medallion style quilts. These ranged from the very stylized quilts with appliquéd baskets, vines and flowers during the nineteenth century to the stunning twentieth century quilt by Ruth Lee shown to the right.3
This appliquéd motif were and still are a popular motif on Baltimore Album style quilts. They can be found in many museum examples including an album quilt from Vermont made about 1870.4 As I examine a photo of this quilt I find three baskets. An empty one tipped at a 45-degree angle with a simple triangle for thecontainer. Another is made up of several triangles, possibly pieced, giving the sense of the basket having been woven. This one contains three rounded objects indicating fruit. The most elaborate one on the quilt has narrow horizontal spaces reverse appliquéd into the basket. A detailed array of fruit overflows the container.
Even Crazy Quilts sometimes included embroidered baskets among the lavish embroidery found on many of these quilts. Modern crazy quilt makers have even crafted floral arrangements with silk ribbon to flow from these embroidered containers.5
In the most primitive form triangles, diamonds and other shapes are cut from fabric then pieced. Jonathan Holstein included two basket quilts in his ground breaking 1971 exhibition meant to show the public how closely related pieced quilts can be to modern art.
The most rudimentary one consisted simply of a triangle for the basket with curved appliquéd handles. The are red on a white background with barely visible cream bases. Holstein considered this quilt a prime example of aesthetic resolution.6
The other is crafted with a triangle on a base while four diamonds radiate from the top of the container appearing to indicate flowers. Each basket is on a white background and they are made with of a variety of fabrics so that not one is the same as another. The blocks are on point alternating with brown dotted fabric squares.7 Holstein found this more sophisticated quilt an interesting contrast to the first quilt that corresponded to primitivism in art.
It's not surprising that Holstein included two examples using this motif in his Exhibition. This pieced block patterns has been popular for a very long time. Quilt Historian, Barbara Brackman, found the earliest known dated pieced basket quilt was made in 1855.8 Quilted and appliquéd examples occurred even earlier.
We find this motif in decorative symbols throughout the life of our nation. A 1779 stove plate in Pennsylvania displays a basket cast in iron. They were glazed on fine dishes, carved into mantle pieces, stitched on samplers and painted by fashionable young ladies.9 Although we no longer carry our vegetables, flowers and other goods in them, we are in love with the romantic symbol of baskets. We show it by using them as containers for gifts and for decorative arrangements. No wonder they are one of the most loved objects related to home and hearth.
© 2004 Judy Anne Breneman
1 p7 and 9 p8 "Small Endearments: 19th Century Quilts for Children"
by Sandi Fox
(new edition from above page numbers)
2 p92 and 4 p137 "The History of the Patchwork Quilt" by Schnuppe von Gwinner
3 webpage, "Heritage Quilts: Ruth Lee"
5 p81 "Crazy Quilting" by Christine Dabbs
6 p182 and 7 199 "Abstract Design in American Quilts: A Biography of an Exhibition" Jonathan Holstein
8 p168"Clues in the Calico" by Barbara Brackman