Summer has faded and the cool breezes are here. It’s the time of year when the drone of the air conditioner is replaced with the hum of the heater and I pull our heavy quilts out of their storage crates. One of my favorite quilts from my childhood, so thin with years of use, now graces my daughter’s bed. It was created by my great-grandmother and mother. I can still picture the unfinished quilt laid out on my great-grandmother’s table, with both her and my mother hunched over pinning down the fabric pieces to be appliquéd on.
Quilts were mentioned by Laura Ingalls Wilder in her books numerous times. When mentioned, quilts were mainly used for warmth. They were also laid out to sit upon and a quilt was hung as a temporary door over the door hole of the little cabin in Kansas. Three quilt patterns were mentioned in the books by their names – the Nine-Patch quilt, the Bear’s Track quilt, and the Dove-in-the-Window.
Quilts get their names from the quilting stitch, or running stitch, that holds the layers of the quilt together. A decorative top is sewn to a backing with batting sandwiched between the two layers, making the quilt. Quilts with no quilting stitch were tied and were also referred to as comforts or comforters. Instead of using a running stitch to quilt layers of the comfort together, pieces of thread or string were used to tie the layers together. Despite the differences between these techniques, quilt was a label that stuck through the years and is now commonly used to describe both types.
In the little house on Plum Creek Laura and Mary slept under a patchwork comforter. The comforter, despite not being quilted, used the same patchwork, or piecing techniques that became popular in the 1860s. New patchwork or piecework pattern designs were continually printed in magazines of the period and by 1889 the Ladies Art Company, a mail-order quilt pattern company, had several designs available. Unlike today, very few patterns had names. Most patterns introduced were labeled with numbers for identification. It was not until the 1930s that names were given to new and most existing patterns in magazines like Home Art, Country Gentleman, Kansas City Star, and Oklahoma Farmer.
In On the Banks of Plum Creek Laura “started a bear’s-track quilt. It was harder than a nine-patch, because there were bias seams” and that made it difficult to keep the seams smooth. In These Happy Golden Years Laura is packing her trunk to leave home and packed away “her Dove-in-the-Window quilt that she had pieced as a little girl.”
Was Laura’s Bear’s-Track quilt and Dove-in-the-Window quilt the same quilt? It is possible. There was a Bear’s Paw pattern that had similar construction to an early Dove-in-the-Window pattern. The pieces required for constructing the block are the same with only a slight difference in the layout of the colored pieces of cloth. It can be assumed that the quilt Laura made used this design but that leaves the arrangement of the pieces in question. Was the design a Bear’s Paw or a Dove-in-the-Window?
We may never know. It is likely this quilt was consumed during the fire that raged through their De Smet home. By the time either book was published, quilt blocks were generally named and it is probable the editors did not catch or question the different names of the quilts Laura mentioned. Originally Laura’s quilt block design would not have had a name but she most likely would have assigned the quilt a name based on the way she remembered it. Interestingly, at times, quilt blocks were given different names depending on the source and through the years quilt blocks have been renamed, occasionally reflecting current events. This makes quilt identification difficult because there is often no correct name for any design.
Without considering contemporary sources, three different blocks were called the Bear’s Paw block. There is also one called Bear’s Foot, which shares the same design as one of the Bear’s Paw patterns. There is no Bear’s Track block. The earliest record of this design was pattern #351 through the Ladies Art Company and that pattern made it in print after 1897. There was an earlier pattern – pattern #162, but the tracks are arranged in a clockwise position, like a pinwheel.
There are over a dozen patterns named Dove-in-the-Windows, all of them pieced together differently. The earliest and most recognizable pattern of Dove-in-the-Window was by the Ladies Art Company – pattern #215. Patterns #1-272 were in print by 1895.
Compare the Bear’s Paw and the Dove in the Window block side by side. Notice how the pieces required to construct the block are the same. It is the arrangement of the smaller triangles and color placement that make the blocks different. (Quilt block images used with permission from quiltstobestitched.com.)
If Laura remembered the design of the quilt correctly, was it a Bear’s Paw or a Dove-in-the-Window? Perhaps more importantly is the fact that the quilt was an essential household item on the frontier. Often quilts were pieced together and quilted with diligence and used for many years. They provided warmth and brightened homes. Each one is unique – pieced with the fabrics chosen, following a pattern or coming up with one’s own. Even a quilt with no name may provide a glimpse into the life and the personality of its creator.