Discover Vintage America - FEBRUARY 2020

Recreating the past – Tips for making pieces of history

Quilting should be a joyful experience and honoring the work of previous quiltmakers ought to be pleasurable. Remember it is only fabric and they will make more. Immerse yourself in the beauty of antique quilts. Here are some things to remember along the way. Have fun learning from the past.

Pennsylvania Posies by Sandra Starley, 2012, 40" x 40" Inspired by borders and blocks from four antique quilts. (Sandra Starley photo)

Join the American Quilt Study Group, attend antique quilt trunk shows or take a quilt history class to see real antiques in the cloth. Study examples of unused fabrics, quilt blocks, and tops to understand true period colors. Also, look at undamaged quilts and fabrics along with those that are faded to learn about the fabric colors that were popular in the era you are trying to recreate and how they have changed.

Educating yourself on quilt styles, fabrics, settings, patterns, etc. over time (aka quilt history) is invaluable in creating accurate reproduction quilts. Refer to the Covering Quilts archives for historical information, references, online resources, and Facebook groups.


Play with colors and fabrics

Often quilts have faded from use, washing, sun exposure, fugitive (unstable) dyes or sometimes all of the above. Think about how the antique quilt looked when it was brand new and decide whether to capture the quilt as it was then, now, or somewhere in between. Will you try to find exact matches to original fabrics or keep the same general colors and designs but use more fabrics, i.e., 20 different Turkey reds when the original used two? Adding more fabrics in the same tones and styles can add visual interest while keeping the overall feel of the original. This is an easy first step in learning how to create new and interesting quilts rather than simply copying old ones.

Choosing fabrics against my Pennsylvania antique cheddar baskets original. I picked one orange but 13 different pinks and blues, a different set for each basket I recreated. (Sandra Starley photo)


Make it your own – Change size, scale or focus

Why not use an antique quilt as an inspiration or jumping-off point to make a unique creation? This is particularly important if you are recreating an old quilt that you found in a book or online and do not have the owner's permission. The collector/owner may have invested a significant amount to purchase it and have plans on using it for a pattern or book. They won't be happy to see a new carbon copy come across their Pinterest or Instagram feed. One way to do this is to combine elements from two different quilts. For example, find two distinctive antique Churn Dash quilts or take the color scheme or setting from one quilt and use the blocks from another.
Highlight a special element from a favorite antique quilt, like a bird appliqué or basket border, and use it to create a new quilt. The bird appliqué can become the focus of a medallion quilt and be framed by pieced borders. Alternatively, a few more feathered friends can join him for a four-block quilt. Those beloved baskets can move from border to blocks or can be paired with appliqué instead of the original pieced center.

Loosen up!

Again, remember to have fun and enjoy the journey. Try to relax and avoid cookie-cutter perfection. Often what draws us to antique quilts is the wonky and quirky originality of the pieces. It is easy to take away that charm by making the new quilt as if we are following a pattern instead of working a bit more improvisationally. Early quilters often were copying designs from memory that they only saw one time at a fair or a friend's home. Many did not obsess about perfectly round flower centers or sharp points on leaves or having the appliqués on the left exactly mirror those on the right. What a freeing concept – quilts don't have to be perfect but can be oddly wonderful!

Sandra Starley is nationally certified quilt appraiser, quilt historian, and avid antique quilt collector. She travels throughout the U.S. presenting talks on antique quilt history, fabric dating classes and trunk shows as well as quilting classes. Learn more at Send your comments and quilt questions to

Covering Quilts Archive past columns