• Quilting Then and Now

    The Adirondack region has been the home of a vibrant pieced textile tradition for over a century and a half.

    From bedcovers plain and fancy meant to keep families warm through long Adirondack winters to the stunning art quilts of the twenty-first century, the quilts and comforters of northern New York State mirror national trends and tell a unique story of life in the mountains.

    Quilts made of fabric scraps speak of thrift, or poverty, or both. Adirondack quilts reflect the beauty of the Adirondacks. Thick, tied comforters tell of cold winter nights. Church groups and charity organizations make quilts to support causes; friends and villagers make quilts to commemorate history and heritage.

    Adirondack quilters follow the latest quilting trends. A century ago, crazy quilts were the fashion; today it is strip-pieced quilts and pictorial wall hangings.

    Quilts and comforters were primarily bed coverings, although they clearly had a decorative function, too. Today, many quilters conceive their quilts as works of art.

  • Bog River Falls

    by Genevieve Yates Sutter, Tupper Lake, N.Y.
    Photo by Richard Walker

    Every quilt reflects its maker's response to the environment, to her time period, and to quilting. Gen Sutter of Tupper Lake, New York, who designed and made Bog River Falls, enjoyed creating "picture quilts." "You can do more with it," she said. "You don't have to worry about the corners meetin' and if you're makin' a tree, you go, 'So what if the one branch doesn't turn out just like the next one? They're not supposed to!' You can do whatever you want with it, whereas the piecing you know… you gotta get the corners all right and you gotta stoop over your machine all the time."

  • Tree of Paradise

    by Eliza Celestia Dunlop or Hannah Marsh, Baker's Mills, N.Y.
    Photo by Richard Walker

    The "Tree of Paradise" was pieced largely from scraps. The name of the pattern refers to the trees in the Garden of Eden and reveals the religious imagery common in so much of nineteenth century American life.

  • Comforter in the "Tumbler" pattern

    pieced ca. 1900, assembled ca. 1950
    by Ella Johnson and Bertha Stevens
    Johnsburg Historical Society, Johnsburg, N.Y.
    Photo by Richard Walker

    Quilts and Comforters

    Quilts and comforters consist of three layers: a top, a filler (batting), and a back. Both are often called "quilts." The three layers must be attached to each other to keep the filler from shifting and to make the piece easier to handle. Both often have tops made of many small pieces of fabric sewn together in a decorative pattern.

  • Whitework quilt

    by Sarah M. Getman, Mayfield, N.Y.
    Private Collection

    What is a Quilt?

    A quilt is put together with running stitches over all of the piece. This stitching, or "quilting," is often decorative as well as functional. Quilting takes time, especially if the stitches form decorative patterns of their own, as in this quilt. Fine quilting, in which the stitches are tiny and even, is an advanced skill.

    Sarah Margaret Getman was fifteen when she made this quilt. She died six years later and was buried in a cemetery in Mayfield, N.Y, under a headstone that reads simply "Maggie, in her 21st year." We know that the general level of skill in needlework among the female population was higher in the mid-1800s than now, but the work seems far above the ordinary - specially for a fifteen year old girl. Did Maggie suffer from consumption or some other wasting disease that kept her inside and at work on quiet occupations?

  • Comforter in the "Brick Wall" pattern

    between 1890 and 1930
    by Francena Sperry Higby, Big Moose, N.Y.
    Photo by Richard Walker

    What is a comforter?

    Tied quilts, like this one in which three layers are secured by a piece of thread or yarn tied through all three layers, are called comforters or "comforts." They are easier and faster to make than quilts. Tying can also accommodate thicker batting and fabrics that are warmer. Comforters are sometimes called "utility quilts," because they were the ordinary, everyday bed covers. Finely quilted pieces were reserved for special use.

    Francena Sperry Higby (1863-1951) lost her right arm below the elbow at the age of 9 in a sawmill accident, but "more than one person has said of her, 'What anyone else could do with two hands, she could do as well or better with one.'" She and her husband built the Higby Club on Big Moose Lake in 1891, and until her death she helped run it. During the off-season she and her daughters made comforters for the use of the staff.

  • Sarah Sabattis relaxing on her porch in Long Lake

    ca. 1889
    P 649

    "Women's Work"

    Sewing was work, especially when hunched over a sewing machine in poor winter light, but hand sewing could be relaxing. It was one of the few times in the day when a woman could sit down.

    For a long time, Adirondack women were responsible for producing most of the textiles used in their homes. Factory-woven cloth was commonly available in the North Country by the middle of the nineteenth century, and ready-made men's clothing followed soon after. Women still made baby clothes, diapers, children's clothing, their own dresses and aprons, as well as sheets, towels, curtains, and quilts.

    Today Adirondack women, like women all over America, sew because they want to, not because they have to. Ready-made clothing and household textiles are more accessible and affordable than they were just a generation or two ago.

    Quilting has become a hobby, not a way of providing for the family and making good use of fabric scraps. It is still an occupation for leisure hours, but most quilters buy the fabric for their projects, and piece and quilt by machine, rather than by hand.

  • Home, Glorious Home!

    bed quilt by Nancy DiDonato, Diamond Point, N.Y.
    Private Collection
    Photo by Richard Walker

    A Tradition Updated

    "I set out to make a quilt that would encompass all the wonders of living on Trout Lake in the beautiful Adirondacks," wrote Nancy DiDonato. "With inspiration from Debbie Field's book, Spirit of the Northwoods, I created this piece. Coming up with the 20 original corner blocks was a real challenge until my kids and grandkids got involved, each suggesting their favorite sport, creature, flower, or activity. It was then up to Mom/Nana to create them on my trusty thirty-year-old Kenmore. The multitude of green trees in the sashing represents the forest surrounding us here on Trout Lake. This was a labor of love, made to include each of our family members and our life in our home, glorious home, the Adirondacks."

    Debbie Field, of Granola Girl Designs, designed the blocks for this quilt. Granola Girl, as well as Country Threads, Prairie's Edge Patchworks, Moose Country Quilts, and other quilting companies trade on the public's association of quilts with a romantic ideal of country values and lifestyle. The patterns and kits sold by these companies are very popular in country-style or rustic homes in the Adirondacks.