Tuesday, August 17, 2010



Last week my Connecticut daughter and fourteen year old grandson came to visit. We spent most of the time inside talking and playing cards. It was just too hot to truck around the nearby towns. The close time together with my family was touching to me as I had not seen either of them for a couple of  years. My son was still visiting from New Mexico and he got into some heavy chess games with my grandson. 

My daughter and I, while the chess games were being played, did venture out in the heat to view some displays of quilts in the town of Berea, Kentucky. There, we came across this early, old quilt that was labeled rare in the genre of quilts. It was a Kentucky Mourning Quilt from Pulaski county, Kentucky and was owned by Carol Ann White.


Although I have always admired the handiwork of women I was unfamiliar with the idea of mourning quilts. This particular quilt had a crazy pattern with names of deceased individuals including the date of death embroidered on some of the squares. 

The fabrics were rich earthy colors, not the least bit morbid. Apparently, fabrics used in making mourning quilts are often made with clothes of the deceased. At least that is what it said on the label next to the quilt. If this were so then why do the nine squares in the quilt contain some of the same fabrics while having different names. 

The dates of the deceased ranged from 1896 through to 1900, a time when crazy quilt design was used frequently.There is a theory that such a mourning quilt would be used to drape a coffin at the funeral. Perhaps the name of the deceased would be embroidered on or after such a ritual? If this were the case then the quilt would represent probable family ties through the quilt. 


The above quilt section just has the name Armilda with no date of death. I wondered why this was so. Perhaps it was the maker's name (although I feel this unlikely) or perhaps a stillborn child?? Wish such artifacts could talk. 

Overall there was a total of nine large crazy quilt squares sewn together resulting in a size that would fit either a three quarter size bed or full size one. However, I feel that the quilt was not used for a bed. Rather it was probably tucked away for the funeral ritual of draping the coffin. 

I thought that perhaps since there were several empty squares it allowed names to be added over time. Each square had only one name so a total of 9 people could be recorded on the quilt. 


Mourning quilts might be a lone regional folkway. Why I say this is that similar type quilts were popular in the mid-1800s -- called graveyard quilts. Research  found that graveyard quilts have been found in Tennessee, Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia -- all within the upland south region (this would mean southern Ohio by this latter statement). Perhaps the graveyard quilts influenced the later mourning quilts in the region?


Above is the Kentucky Coffin Quilt from the mid-1800s. Around the border is a fence and along the interior of the fence are 6-sided coffins basted onto the quilt. Those within the perimeter do not have dates. It is supposed that the perimeter coffins were basted to allow removal to the center graveyard if someone were to pass away. The perimeter coffins were like  "coffins in waiting." This quilt might have been one that was draped over a coffin at a funeral. 

I could go on with thoughts about how and why these quilts were used and made. However, I will stop here and let the reader contemplate their own theories.


View interesting close-up photos of the Kentucky Coffin Quilt.


  1. The first quilt you show has very wonderful colors and nice stitching. The last one I have seen reproduced in books with the sort of information you provide. There is a national Quilt Study Group based at the U. of Nebraska which is likely to have answers to some of your questions. They may have a Kentucky chapter [although I do not know if they are organized that way].

    It is sobering to think of people who have such frequent deaths in the family that someone makes a funeral quilt to drape caskets and leaves places to add names as deaths occur.

    I do know that the practice still takes place of making quilts after a death using some of the deceased's clothing in the quilt, especially neckties, it seems. I know a woman who, after her husband died, made quilts for his nephews from his shirts, leaving the pockets on as part of the design. She put notes in the pockets telling the nephews, "Uncle ---. would have given you the shirt off his back."

  2. These are beautiful, Barbara.
    The issue with the same fabric/cloth being used for several different people could be an item of clothing that was handed down to each person?
    I haven't come across anything like this in Australia except for the (more recent) AIDS quilt/s.

  3. I own a quilt very like the first picture -- but there's no indication on mine that the embroidered names are people who have died.

    And the graveyard quilt -- I've not seen it in person but I'm familiar with this famous example. How weird a mindset to want to make something like that! But I'm glad she did.

  4. June -- I do appreciate the references that you gave in your comment. I did follow-up with the Quilt Study Group and got lost in all the great information. I did not realize that so much research had been done on quilts and that hundreds of books have been published about the subject. I did copy several of the book titles down to order through an Inter-Library Loan.

    Interesting fact that mourning type quilts are still being made. I envy women (and probably some men) that they can create such beautiful masterpieces.

    Yes, I did especially love the rich colors in my featured mourning quilt. Very earthy.

    I did find a quilt similar to the mourning and graveyard quilts when I did further research today. It is a quilt called the "Tombstone" quilt created in 1842 in N.Y. The photo and documentation can be found at the Smithsonian National Museum -- here is the link --
    Perhaps you are familiar with it.

    Thanks again -- barbara

  5. Jayne -- I was wondering if Australia had a quilt history aside from the Aids quilt. I can't really say where the roots of quilt making evolved. I am sure there is an answer to this somewhere.

    Yes, good point about the passed down clothing. That could be part of the answer to the like-fabrics being included in several squares.

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment -- barbara

  6. Vicki -- You mention that you have a quilt very much like the mourning quilt -- however, it lacks death dates. Perhaps you have a friendship quilt?

    Wonderful that you have actually seen the graveyard quilt. In-person experience is always the best way to get the feeling of material artifacts.

    Your comment is appreciated -- barbara

  7. Thanks for the link to the Nancy A. Butler quilt -- looking at it I thought it was small but they gave the dimensions and it's larger -- a very bold statement by the quilter.

  8. I've never heard of the coffin quilts. I suspect that with so many deaths of children, there were many of their little coffins moved to the center. Such a poignant piece.

  9. NCmountainwoman -- Thanks for the comment on the quilts. Perhaps the center of the coffin quilt was reserved for the children? If one looks at the close-up photos on the included link one can discern outlines in the center where new coffins would be placed. I would like to know more about the cultural background of these quilts, if possible. -- barbara

  10. I love quilts. I have never heard of a mourning quilt before, but I can see people doing it in the old days. My neighbor's mother made a quilt from the ribbons that were on the flower arrangements at her husbands funeral. He showed it to me and I had never heard of such a thing, but I think it is a unique idea.

  11. Janet -- quilts are wonderful expressions of (usually) women's creativity. I usually can feel the energy of the maker when I look at a quilt. -- barbara

  12. I'd never heard of mourning quilts before either, and found this post very poignant and fascinating. I wonder if the quilts were kept stored till they were used for the next funeral, or if they were displayed all the time, or if they were used for bedding like any other quilt (somehow I can't imagine that last one being the case!)

    Like June's acquaintance, my quilting friend Jo made a quilt for a neighbor whose husband had died out of a bunch of his shirts, at her neighbor's request. I think Jo called it a "memory quilt," and I know it's not the same as these, but it's the closest I'd ever come to anything like this. I really like idea June mentioned of using the shirts' pockets in the quilt, with those notes tucked in!

    I'm fond of the first quilt's warm, earthy colors too. They're comforting.

  13. Laloofah -- I am not sure as to how the quilt was cared for. There is a possibility I could find out as Carol Ann White, the present owner of the mourning quilt knew the family. If I find out I will leave a comment on your blog. -- barbara

  14. Okay, Barbara... or you could leave your comment here, I'll check back now and then! (I don't usually respond to them, but I do always try to get back to read your replies!) :-)

  15. Fabric was purchased by the yard or by the bolt, depending on how much money could be spent or how many people needed clothing. This might account for the duplication of fabrics. And of course "hand me downs" were an everyday fact of life. I recall being delighted with a few feed sacks, all the same pattern, to cut and sew a dress even though we had an electric sewing machine instead of the treadle kind like my father's relatives.

  16. How interesting is your comment. You sound like a quilter? Definitely a woman that knows how to use a sewing machine or do stitching with a needle. I have a huge sum of clothes that were my girls when they were young. They are now near 50. I sure would love to learn how to quilt and put together a wall hanging for each. Perhaps some day. thanks -- barbara