Green Scene

Life on the Oregon Trail heavily influenced quilting


Continuing our discussion on quilts from last week, cotton and its bolls have a particularly serious drawback as a commercial crop. The seeds account for about 55 percent of the newly picked cotton, but they must be completely detached from the fibers before the cotton can be prepared for spinning.

The seeds are beneficial and can be used for animal feed and pressed for oil. Indeed, I remember in years past when food technology was less sophisticated, cottonseed oil was one of the few cooking oils available on Pesach (Passover).

Today cottonseed oil is processed for a variety of uses such as margarine, cosmetics, and waterproofing.

The prime reason to grow cotton, however, is for the fibers. Picking out the seeds by hand is a laborious process. It takes one person about 10 hours to separate a pound of fiber from the seeds. Several hand-powered devices were invented in India, the first already in the fifth century. A better version came into use in the 16th century, enabling two people to clean 28 pounds of cotton per day.

Another Indian version, called the churka, was introduced to the United States in the 1600s. This mechanism worked, however, only on the long-fiber cottons that could be grown only in coastal areas. The short-fiber cottons were better suited to inland growing conditions, but those seeds could only be removed by hand.

In 1793, Eli Whitney invented his cotton gin (short for “engine”), which could process 50 pounds of short-staple cotton a day, thus making large-scale inland plantations viable. Unfortunately, this created a need for a large labor force and farmers turned to slave labor. Therefore, “this invention was identified as an inadvertent contributing factor to the outbreak of the American Civil War,” according to a published history.

There were other political ramifications as well. England had an important woolen cloth industry. When the East India Co., started importing cheap cotton cloth in the 1660s to England, it led to unrest in the domestic industry. The Calico Act in 1700 tried to suppress the importation of cotton cloth. The act was strengthened in 1721 with further restrictions on the sale of cotton cloth. The acts were repealed in 1774, and cotton cloth manufacture in England burgeoned.

Quilting was done for many different purposes depending on economic status and era. Women were in charge of seeing to the clothing and bedding needs of their families, and quilting would have been part of their general skills. At the end of a busy day, without other entertainment possibilities, quilting and needlework were considered a leisurely activity.

In frontier areas, quilting was a social opportunity with groups of women meeting to work on their individual projects, or to jointly quilt the finished product.

Particularly interesting is the popular and widespread use of floral motifs. The book “A Flowering of Quilts” was recommended by Carolyn Ducey, a curator at the International Quilt Center. It illuminates the special relationship between women, botany and nature as defined by social conventions in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In the early 19th century, botany became the feminine science in England and the United States. Nature was seen as a moral force, and with women being seen as the natural moral guardians within the family, the relationship was cemented.

Gardening, therefore, was a highly approved activity. And with the importation of colorful plants as well as the establishment of seed catalogs, brightly hued flowers were more readily available. Likewise, landscape architecture also was considered a professional field appropriate for women.

However, despite female contributions to botany, as the professionalization of botany occurred in later years, amateur botanists became marginalized.

It has been suggested that many of the quilts created in the more settled areas of the United States incorporated elements from garden design as in their work. European landscape design was seen as particularly sophisticated, and various gardening magazines introduced the American public to these concepts.

For example, vining flowerbeds are echoed in the use of vines as borders on quilts.

But flowers were a constant in quilt motifs. That favorite American flower, the rose, even shows up as a political symbol of the Whig party, and was known as the Whig Rose. Sometimes flowers were seen as secret communication, although the symbolism was variable probably leading to some confusion.

To name a few, tulips meant love, peonies healing, and daisies farewell. In addition, oak leaves represented strength and vines meant abundance. Occasionally insects as well as birds also were incorporated.

Decorative quilts were created for different purposes. The book “Treasures in the Trunk” by Mary Bywater Cross examines quilts sewn by the pioneer women who endured the hardships of the Oregon Trail between 1840 and 1870 before many of these territories became states. This trail was a 2,170-mile journey, made primarily by wagon trains, connecting the Missouri River to the valleys of Oregon, and was traveled by about 400,000 pioneers.

The states traversed were Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming and Idaho. Oregon, however, had become a state by 1859 — ahead of many of the areas those who journeyed the trail traveled through.

While those women brought quilts with them as bedding and protection from the cold, the quilts created during and after the journey were often a response to natural forces encountered on the trek. The Pinwheel Design represented high winds and the Wheel Pattern indicates the vital role the wagon wheels played in safely making the journey.

There is even a design named “The Oregon Trail.”

And flowers continue to be a favorite motif.

Today I shop for my quilting needs at The Quilt Tree in Nyack. Check it out —  quilting will amaze you!

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