Discover Vintage America - MARCH 2017

Hidden treasures or 'What's in my quilt?'

Collecting antique quilts can be an exciting journey; from the thrill of the hunt, to frenzied auction bidding, to catching a hint of something wonderful and finding out your instincts were correct. There is always something new to discover along the way such as unusual quilt fillers.

A standard quilt is made of three layers: a top, backing, and batting in the middle. Old blankets were a frequent substitute for commercial batting. Stranger items used as filling ranged from old clothing, underwear (from ladies silks to long johns), bathing suits, towels, bath mats, fabric scraps, wool socks, nylons, newspapers, and even pine needles.*

c.1910 quilt with older quilt inside. Hand quilted along edges and then tied. (photos Sandra Starley Collection)

Some quilters used a full quilt for the inner layer, creating what is known as a "quilt in a quilt". The resulting five layered quilts were usually tied with string or yarn rather than hand quilted. Double quilts are not common but are not exceedingly rare either. Less frequently, people find more than one quilt inside the outer quilt. A few have been found consisting of three or more quilts in a quilt, the textile version of a Russian nesting doll.

These quilts in quilts were heavy and difficult to hand quilt so why were they made? Old quilts were repurposed when there was no money to purchase new batting, as part of a thrifty "waste not, want not" attitude, or even because the old top was handy and saved a trip to the store which might be a day's ride away. For some makers the extra warmth was a welcome bonus of a doubled quilt.

Perhaps for some the older quilt was no longer fashionable or the earlier maker was no longer in favor. One usually finds a quilt that has seen better days rather than one that is in good condition so it appears that the practice was generally related to thrift, recycling or convenience.

A strong clue that you likely have a double quilt is the extra thickness and often lumpiness from the bulk of the five layers. Another indicator is extra large quilting stitches or tying rather than quilting. I found a family double quilt where the maker initially tried to hand quilt the new quilt but gave up after only a few difficult rows and tied the rest of the quilt (smart woman).

Uncovering the inner early 1800s quilt inside the 1850 signature quilt.

At times, the inner quilt is harder to detect. I purchased a signature quilt last year that was nicely hand quilted and was not bulky but weighed significantly more than other similar quilts. The quilt was already notable as the top was from 1850 but the border and backing fabrics were from 1890; clearly an earlier top finished by a later generation. However, that did not explain the extra weight.

Curiosity got the better of me and I got my handy seam ripper, peeked inside, and found a second quilt. The inner quilt is probably from a previous or third generation as it is an 1820s chintz floral with a linen backing. What an amazing find, essentially three pieces spanning almost 100 years.

The signature blocks are from Bucks County, PA and I will share more about the people and their history in an upcoming column.

Please note: I do not encourage wanton alterations of antique quilts but if you have a bit of healthy inquisitiveness, the careful use of a seam ripper may yield a delightful discovery. Happy hunting and be sure to document the journey.

* Thank you to fellow quilt historians: Lori East, Teddy Pruett, Martha Spark, Madge Ziegler, Alice McElwain and Laura Syler for the strange quilt content information.

Sandra Starley is nationally certified quilt appraiser, quilt historian, and avid antique quilt collector. She travels throughout the U.S. presenting talks on antique quilt history, fabric dating classes and trunk shows as well as quilting classes. Learn more at Send your comments and quilt questions to

Covering Quilts Archive past columns