Did Susan Holbert make this quilt?

By Doris M. Bowman

An extravagantly appliqued mid-19th century cotton quilt has been placed on exhibit in an artifact wall case on the first floor of the museum. One of over three hundred quilts in the National Quilt Collection, it was deemed an appropriate choice for the summer months because of its explosion of color in depicting sunbursts, flowers, leaves, and birds.

Susan T. Holbert quilt
Susan T. Holbert quilt, 19th century. This quilt is on view in the Artifact Wall on the first floor.

The quilt belonged to Susan T. Holbert who was born in Chester, Orange County, New York, in 1834. “S. T. Holbert” is stenciled in the center of the lining, denoting Susan’s ownership. However, the quilt might have been made by her sister, Emily, who was older by thirteen years. Emily’s talent and skill in quilt making is evidenced by another quilt in the collection that she made in 1847, and inscribed in large appliqued letters, “EMILY HOLBERT’S QUILT.”

Inscribed in large appliqued letters, “EMILY HOLBERT’S QUILT.”
Inscription "Emily Holbert's Quilt" found on another quilt in the collection.

Emily was born in 1820. On October 30, 1851, at age thirty-one, she married a younger man, Theodore Finch, who was born in 1827. Theodore died in January 1852, only a few months after their marriage. Emily died in 1858 so did not live to see sister Susan marry William Alfred Lawrence in 1861. The result of this history is that unanswered questions remain. Did Emily or Susan make the quilt? Did Emily make the quilt for Susan? Did Emily make the quilt for herself and Susan receive it when Emily died? The two quilts offer a charming and provocative legacy of an early New York family.

Emily Holbert's quilt
Emily Holbert's quilt.

Certain necessary considerations are brought to bear in choosing a quilt from the collection for exhibition in the artifact wall cases. The cases are meant to show a variety of the kinds of objects in collections throughout the museum. Textiles are very light-sensitive, so the lighting in the section where the quilt is shown has been brought to an acceptable low for cotton quilts in good condition. Even so, the quilt must be removed at the end of six months at the latest, and replaced with another.

The mounting on which the quilt is exhibited is a wooden stretcher frame that has been covered with a sturdy undyed cotton fabric. A piece of Velcro (the loop side) equaling the width of the quilt is machine-stitched to a cotton strip of similar length and the latter hand-stitched across the top of the reverse side of the quilt, with the Velcro side out and the fabric side next to the quilt. The matching hook side of the Velcro is attached across the top of the covered stretcher frame. The loop side of the Velcro is joined to the hook side, suspending the quilt on the covered frame by the Velcro, with nothing touching the quilt but cotton fabric and hand-stitching with cotton thread. The frame is placed in the exhibit case with the upper edge against the back wall and the lower edge about 4” out from the wall, creating a slant that provides additional support to the quilt.

Both quilts and ninety-six more from the collection can be seen in the museum’s online collections. Watch for more to be added in the near future.

The quilts in the national collection date from the 18th through the 20th century. Most were donated, frequently with information about the people who made them. They offer a window into the lives of Americans throughout the years, representing not only the materials available to their makers and the needlework techniques practiced, but clues to their circumstances, their sentimental and societal concerns, and their interactions with family, friends, and community.

Behind-the-scenes quilt tours are offered on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month. For reservations, please call 202-633-3825.

Editor's note: Do you have a quilt in your family’s collection? What story does it tell? Share with us in the comments below.

Doris Bowman is Associate Curator in the Division of Home and Community Life at the National Museum of American History.