I promised last month I’d feature our bargain quilt; one of our best bargains ever, the white on white trapunto that we bought at auction for $2.00. If the dresser cover was difficult to photograph, the entire quilt is nearly impossible. From any distance at all, the detail is nearly invisible to the camera. Instead, I’ll have to show details of various parts of the quilt.
But first, the story behind this quilt – at least our story. We went to an auction one day, and were surprised to find twice as much merchandise as usual. We couldn’t believe it could all be sold in a day. There were hundreds of box lots to start off the sale, and tables and tables of china, glassware, pottery and other decorative items and antiques. The auctioneer announced that there would be two auctioneers selling simultaneously at first, with a third beginning later. That meant that at least one of us (there are only two) would have to be in two places at once.
Luckily, it seldom happens that items of interest to us are competing with other similar items at any one auction, so it wasn’t too difficult to decide where to focus our attentions. And one area that caught our eye was a room full of long tables, easily a dozen or more of them, all piled with textiles and linens. These, we were told, would be offered a bit later, so we’d have some time to look to see what was there.
As it turned out there was a lot to interest us in that one room. There were feedsacks and fabrics, tablecloths and towels, aprons and all sorts of vintage clothing, linens, bedspreads and more. Usually at auction we try to map out a strategy, deciding what items we want, and how much we’ll be willing to bid on them. Still, we’re often left with uncertainty as to how they’ll be offered. Sometimes feedsacks, for instance, are sold by the stack of 10, or 5, sometimes by the piece (your choice), sometimes in larger lots. But with the auction so crowded with merchandise, and with the auctioneers so busy, we weren’t able to find out their plans of attack. Still, we spent hours digging through the piles of stuff, making lists of items we wanted.
One thing that did surprise us was that, though the auction was advertised, there were not all that many bidders in attendance – perhaps a third less than usual. Maybe there were a lot of other auctions competing, maybe some people were on vacation. (It was late July.)
As the hot afternoon wore on, we found a few buys, but the room full of textiles hadn’t yet been touched. Then it was announced that a fourth auctioneer would begin selling in that room. By now we were already fatigued, so we decided to concentrate together on just the textiles that were now being sold. After a couple of hours, we’d bought a pretty big pile of stuff, but half the room was still full. And it was getting late, the auctioneers were anxious to finish. Besides, the bids were not going very high – there simply were not enough bidders who’d lasted this long.
Another hour went by, we’re now well into early evening and still 3 or 4 tables left to sell. Finally, it was clear the auctioneer was becoming tired and frustrated himself, and he began combining items in larger and larger lots. At the end of the auction, the last table was divided into four huge piles of spreads, linens and other textiles.
“Ok, by the pile, yout choice – who’ll bid ten dollars? Ten dollars, ten dollars, ten dollars, five – who’ll bid five dollars a pile? Five dollars, five dollars, five dollars?? WHO’LL BID TWO DOLLARS A PILE?”
My hand went up almost as a reflex. Surely I’d be outbid – I didn’t even know what was in those piles, but at $2 I guess I could take a chance.
“I’ve got two dollars. Who’ll bid three? Three, three, three dollars? SOLD, two dollars a pile!! Do you want them all?”
It was the end of a long day of looking, organizing, bidding, dragging stuff to the car, over and over. Too tired to decide among the piles, I agreed to take them all. By the time I squeezed armloads and armloads of everything into the car and we drove home, it was well after dark. Tomorrow we’d have to go through it all, figure out what we’d gotten, see what to keep and what to throw away.
As morning arrived, another lovely, sunny day, we knew we had our work cut out for us. The car was packed with textiles; we didn’t even know what we had brought home. Everything from old sheets to tattered tablecloths, as it turned out – but, wait! Look at the fringe on that piece – it looks hand-made!
We pulled it out of the pile, gasped, opened it up fully, gasped again. Spreading it out on the lawn, we tried to catch our breaths. In one of those $2 piles from the end of the auction – piles of white stuff we’d scarcely paid attention to – was a whitework trapunto quilt. This was the first we’d ever owned; the only one for that matter. Once before we had bid on one at auction, but stopped short of the winning bid a friend and fellow antique dealer made – $3000.00. Now we had ours for two dollars!
It’s huge! Early beds were high, and the covers hung down far on all sides. Including the fringe, the whole thing measures about 103 x 115 inches. It required a lot of what was probably quite expensive cotton at the time it was made, about 1820.
In the center of the quilt is the ubiquitous cornucopia, from which are sprouting all manner of flowers and foliage.
Surrounding that is a ribbon garland, fastening grain, flowers, etc. in bows at intervals.
Then comes a very strange vine, from which grow everything from grapes to sunflowers, tulips and ferns
You get the impression of some sort of fertility imagery here?
Outside the ribbon and the encircling vine, in the four corners of the quilt, are perhaps my favorite parts of the whole thing. Growing in each corner is a Willow? tree, and each is attended to by three birds.
And beyond all these are the outer borders, an undulating feathered vine, groups of fern leaves, and a row of alternately tilted lozenges. Top it off with the handmade fringe, and it’s a beautiful bedcover.
We were unable to find much specific information about the quilt. We ran into a dead end pursuing the estate from which we bought it – noone knew its origin. The only clue we have as to the maker or original owner are the initials P C stitched into the edge of the quilt along one side.
Upon conferring with a number or experts, we’ve come to a consensus on the rest of this information. The quilt is cotton, a looser weave on the back through which the stuffing was inserted. It is probably of Pennsylvania origin, and dates from the early 19th century, best guess the 1820’s or so. At the time we bought it, it was the oldest quilt we owned. (We now own an older quilt also; that’s another story in itself.) It could use a bath, but it will take us another 10 years or so to get up the courage; in the meantime it’s still awesome!
We’ve cut way back on our going to auctions; one a week is about our limit now, and sometimes we still get great buys – but this one will be tough to match!