Whitework: Women Stitching Identity

American women who made white embellished bedcovers between 1790 and 1830 were not only making items for their own use. They were expressing support of patriotic efforts to reduce dependence on imported British textiles. Made during a time when women had no public voice, their handworks survive as material records of both personal identity and collective political expression. Examination of these textiles reveals two perspectives on their meaning: the oral histories passed down through white families, augmented by evidence of the participation of enslaved Black artisans in their production.

This exhibition honors the individual makers and their descendants, but it also offers, for the first time, an opportunity to understand these textiles as documents of women’s collective political expression and the conflicting values of American independence.

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Bolton counterpane, 1790-1820
Anonymous British weaver
Cotton/flax blend

This hand-woven counterpane was produced in Bolton, Lancashire, England, from American-grown cotton. One or two weavers worked a double-wide, two-harness loom to weave a bedcover without a center seam. This example would have been purchased as a fashionable consumer item, to be handed down as a family heirloom.

Kentucky Museum, 2857

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Corded and stuffed quilt, ca. 1800
Temperance Wren Sharp (1783- after 1850)
Cotton/flax blend

Temperance Wren married John Sharp in 1816, in Paint Lick, Garrard County, Kentucky. In 1851, her son, William died at age 25. A month later, his young widow Priscilla gave birth to their daughter, Willia Sharp. Priscilla took the baby to her father’s home in Mercer County, where grandmother Temperance and her daughter, also named Temperance, reportedly “used to spend months on visits” to the Brewer home. Willia inherited both her grandmother’s white quilt and her aunt’s appliqued Rose quilt.

Kentucky Museum, 1806

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Embroidered counterpane, dated 1907
Bettie Whitney Napier (1862-1916)

Betty Whitney was born in Allen County, the fourth of twelve children. She married Charles Napier, and they lived in Liberty, Casey County. In 1900, Bettie was widowed and living in Scottsville, and described as a merchant, probably selling needlecraft supplies. Bettie executed the embroidery with great skill and artistry on a pre-stamped design on linen, adding an initial N and the year 1907.

Kentucky Museum, 1993.14

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Tufted embroidered counterpane, ca. 1805
Charlotte Briggs (1795-1862) 

Charlotte Briggs was born in Virginia, then moved to Warren County, Kentucky. She likely made this counterpane before her marriage to Thomas Stephens in 1817. By the time the counterpane came into the possession of Charlotte’s granddaughter, Ora Susan Stephens Davenport (1866-1936), it had suffered from neglect, misuse, and damage. To preserve it, Ora Davenport washed the tattered remnants and carefully stitched them onto a new backing.

Kentucky Museum, 1979.1.1

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Embroidered counterpane, ca. 1790
Miriam Elmina Helm (1777-1868)

Miriam Elmina Helm was born in Virginia in 1777 and came with her family to Kentucky.  She created this elegant counterpane sometime before her marriage to Jacob Wright in 1797.  By 1820, Miriam and Jacob and their 13 children were living in Smiths Grove, Warren County. A granddaughter recalled, “Grandmother took great pains to teach her girls the art of spinning, weaving, and knitting. She did beautiful work herself. I have a counterpane for which she spun the thread, wove the cloth, and then embroidered, when a young girl. Grandmother wanted each of her girls to be a fine hand with a needle.”

Kentucky Museum, 1987.86.1

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Medallion quilt, ca. 1940
Gertrude Marie LaWarre Reuter (1898-1993)

Gertrude Reuter sewed and embroidered as a girl, but she did not discover quilting until she was in her 30s. She became a professional quilter to support her family, making quilts to order, often from the Mountain Mist Batting Company. Of the several hundred quilts she made, the majority were appliqué patterns. This is the only white wholecloth quilt she ever made.

Kentucky Museum, 1999.44.7

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Quilt with center medallion, ca. 1850
Harriet Legran Bates (1827-after 1880)

Harriet Legran Bates was born in Wayne County, Kentucky. By 1880, widowed and childless, she had returned to the family farm, headed by her widowed sister, Patience Jane Bates Simpson. The central medallion of Harriet’s white quilt features cornucopias of pomegranates, grape bunches, and sheaves of grain. The DAR Museum owns two quilts with nearly identical center designs, both of which were made in Wayne County.

Kentucky Museum, 2002.11.1

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Hand-woven “Marseilles quilt,” 1790—1820
Unknown professional weaver
Cotton/flax blend

Factories throughout England produced fancy bedcovers on specialized looms from American-grown cotton. The finished products, described as “quilted in the loom,” were among the popular British textiles exported to the United States as fashionable consumer goods. In the years leading up to the War of 1812, patriotic women expressed support for an embargo against British textiles by creating their own embellished bedcovers.

Kentucky Museum, 1961.1.6

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Wholecloth quilt, ca. 1805
Rebecca Smith Washington (1786—1861)
Cotton/flax blend

Rebecca Smith’s hand-quilted bedcover is a rare surviving example of the influence of imported British woven quilts. Her exquisitely stitched motifs mimic the framed-center format, intricate floral details, and filled background pattern of the popular manufactured textiles. The quilt reportedly “took seven years to stitch.” Rebecca Smith was born in Virginia and married Whiting Washington, a nephew of George Washington. The couple moved to Russellville, Logan County, where they raised their family.

Kentucky Museum, 2652

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Weft-loop woven counterpane, 1804
Elizabeth O’Neal (1786-1891)
Warp: flax; Wefts: cotton/flax blend

Elizabeth O’Neal was born in present-day Nelson County, Kentucky, in 1786. Her mother, Fannie Hall, was a weaver whose parents had emigrated from West Yorkshire, England, to Fairfax, Virginia, around 1750. Elizabeth learned to weave from her mother. In 1804, she wove this white counterpane in a traditional English weft-loop style which predated the more complex Bolton counterpanes woven in neighboring Lancashire.

Kentucky Museum, KM 2021.2.1

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Schoolgirl sampler, dated 1821
Mary Virginia Lafon Jackson (1808—1880)

Mary Virginia Lafon embroidered this sampler at the age of 13. The text comes from a poem, “To a Young Lady,” attributed to “Cotton,” possibly a pseudonym for Cotton Mather (1663-1728), a New England clergyman and poet. Such verses were frequently published in early 19th century schoolbooks.

Mark, my Mary, how the roses
Emulate thy Damask cheek;
How the bud its sweets discloses—
Buds thy opening bloom bespeak.

Lilies are, by plain direction,
Emblems of a double kind;
Emblems of thy fair complexion,
Emblems of thy fairer mind.

But, dear girl, both flowers and beauty
Blossom, fade, and die away:
Then pursue good sense and duty,
Evergreens, which ne’er decay!

Kentucky Historical Society, 1962.152

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Embroidered and quilted counterpane, ca. 1790
Maria Upshaw (Lafon) (1772-1852)

Maria Upshaw was born in 1772 in Essex, Virginia. As a young woman, Maria first embroidered an elegant white counterpane, then took the unusual step of turning it into a quilt, layering her embroidered panel onto batting and backing with close rows of tiny stitches. At age 29, Maria married Captain Nicholas Lafon, her first cousin. They lived in Frankfort before relocating to a farm in Woodford County. Maria’s eldest daughter, Mary Virginia, embroidered a sampler, also in this exhibition.

Kentucky Historical Society, 1935.2

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Embroidered counterpane, ca. 1815
Sarah “Sallie” Darrough (1797-1874)

Sallie Darrough was born in Harrison County, Kentucky in 1797. Her father, James Darrough, was born in Ireland, and her mother, Margaret Dobie, in Pennsylvania. In 1818, at age 20, Sallie married Jacob Hedger and they established a farm in Grant County, where they raised seven children. By 1870, the couple owned real estate and personal property valued at $26,000. Their household included a Black female servant.

Kentucky Historical Society, 37.7

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White “practice” sampler, 1860-1900
Anonymous needleworker

In contrast with the formal samplers made by schoolgirls in female academies, this appears to be an informal practice sampler. The unknown maker started with a piece of linen toweling, stitching over designs marked in ink, probably drawn by a more experienced seamstress.

Kentucky Historical Society, 1976.1.46

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Embroidered counterpane, ca. 1790
Anne Lyne Starling (1777-1840)

Anne Lyne Starling was born to a wealthy family in Mecklenburg County, Virginia. The flax and cotton in her counterpane were likely produced by enslaved farmhands, spinners, and weavers. In 1793, at age 16, she married Major John Holloway, age 31. By 1800, they were living on a 1,500-acre farm in Henderson County, Kentucky, where they raised cotton, flax, and other crops. By 1810, their household included eighteen enslaved laborers.

Kentucky Historical Society, 1980.12.1

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Quilted table cover, ca. 1790
Anne Lyne Starling (1777-1840)

In addition to her embroidered counterpane, Anne Starling also made a cover for a dressing table. This item would have been called a “toilet,” from the French word toile, meaning fabric. It is exquisitely quilted, with some elements raised by inserting cording between rows of stitching.

Kentucky Historical Society, 1980.12.2

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Embroidered counterpane, ca. 1810
Elizabeth “Betsy” Patton Toomey
Warp: flax; Weft and embroidery yarns: cotton/flax blend

Elizabeth Patton Toomey was the granddaughter of Matthew Patton, who emigrated from Ireland, first to Virginia and then to Clark County, Kentucky. Her mother died soon after her birth, and “Betsy” was raised by her aunt, Elizabeth Yeager Patton. Betsy’s counterpane includes Dresden work, which indicates that she learned embroidery at a female academy. The design of her counterpane closely resembles two others, pointing to a single unidentified instructor.

Kentucky Historical Society, 1981.11

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Embroidered tufted counterpane, ca. 1795
Rosannah Fisher (1781-1876)
Cotton/flax blend

Rosannah Fisher was born in Culpeper, Virginia, in 1781. She embroidered her counterpane in a design of tufts on a handwoven ribbed fabric to reproduce the visual appearance of an imported Bolton counterpane.  In 1806, at age 25, she married Martin Hardin. They raised their nine children on a farm in Mercer County. In 1860, Rosannah was widowed and her household included an enslaved family, identified in her late husband’s will as “Jim, Judy, and their children.”

Kentucky Historical Society, 1981.16

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Tufted embroidered counterpane, ca. 1820
Anonymous needleworker

Tufted embroidered bedcovers first appeared in the late-18th century, inspired by woven counterpanes, such as examples elsewhere in this exhibition. Early examples typically mixed tufting with other stitches. This bedcover, from a later period, is covered with dense, high tufts in a bold, asymmetrical design of large, stylized flowers and leaves.

Kentucky Historical Society, 81.17

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Embroidered counterpane, ca. 1810
Anonymous needleworker

In 1981, the staff at the Kentucky Historical Society discovered this counterpane among a trove of uncatalogued early donations. The unknown maker learned to embroider from a skilled instructor, who probably drew the elegant design. Whoever she was, we know that the counterpane was treasured by her descendants, who preserved it in pristine condition.

Kentucky Historical Society, 81.19

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Woven counterpane, ca. 1823
Anonymous enslaved weaver
Cotton/flax blend

This counterpane, handed down in one family, is a rare, surviving example of work attributed to unnamed enslaved artisans. The family narrative states that “slaves made the thread from cotton and wove the coverlet” for Mary Leftwich Strange for her wedding in 1823.

Kentucky Historical Society, 1993.10.2

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Embroidered tufted counterpane, dated 1817
Martha “Patsy” Henry Woodruff (1796-1817)
Cotton/flax blend

This counterpane, inscribed “Martha Woodruff, April 15, 1817,” is a rarity, as very few Kentucky women marked their whitework textiles in this way. It is probable that Martha Henry Woodruff, age 21, recorded the date that she finished her counterpane. On June 10 that year, she gave birth to a daughter, Emily Jane. On October 16, Martha Woodruff died, and, according to custom, her name was given to her baby daughter: Martha Emily Jane Woodruff.

Kentucky Historical Society, 2000.21.1

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Weft-loop woven counterpane, 1800-1820
Anonymous professional weaver
Cotton/flax blend

This counterpane is woven in the same weft-loop technique as those made in Bolton, Lancashire, England, but the format and the motifs are quite different. Some Bolton weavers continued to weave counterpanes after emigrating to the United States, where they modified motifs to suit American consumers.

Kentucky Historical Society, 2014.00.2

Thank You
This exhibit was curated by Laurel Horton, in partnership with Margaret Ordonez and Dr. Kate Brown.

In Partnership With
Kentucky Historical Society
WKU Department of Library Special Collections

Sponsored by
American Quilt Study Group H. Mark Dunn Research Grant and Lucy Hilty Grant
Foundation for Advancement in Conservation
Kentucky Humanities Council
National Endowment for the Humanities
Quilters Guild of Dallas

And continued thanks to Donors of these textiles:
Margaret Gray Blanton
Roseannah McKenney Burton
Alice B. Colyard
Elise Dulaney
Harriett Bosley Funk
Laurel McKay Horton
Sally Jackson
Josephine Johnson
Thomas Lee
Adsonia Martin
William Starling McCarroll
Ora Colista Spradlin Nicholls
Laetitia LaFon Nutt
Susan Rizer
Elza Schwanderman
Wythe Walker