Discover Vintage America - APRIL 2018

Antique quilt travels: Down by the old mill stream

The American Quilt Study Group held its 2017 annual seminar last October in Manchester, NH. For anyone interested in quilt history, I highly recommend joining the organization and participating in their efforts to preserve quilt history.

The Amoskeag Mill Complex located in Manchester, NH.

Fabric is woven into Manchester's very fiber as an historic textile company town so it was the perfect meeting place for this group of avid fabric lovers. Manchester was the home of America's largest fabric mill complex, the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company, in operation from the 1830s to the 1930s. Amoskeag is the Native American name for the local falls of the Merrimack River.

Eventually, the Amoskeag Company had more than 60 different mills with a footprint that spanned more than a mile and a half. They produced five hundred to six hundred miles of cloth every day at the peak of production.

A major force in maintaining the textile history of the city is the Manchester Historic Association. Its Millyard Museum is located in the former Amoskeag facility and exhibits a variety of artifacts documenting the mill's history. The permanent exhibit "Woven in Time" documenting 11,000 years of area history can be viewed online at

The exhibits show the range of items produced by Amoskeag beyond fabric, including a beautiful steam fire engine. Because devastating fires were so common in the mills, they operated their own fire departments. Amoskeag went beyond that and produced steam fire engines and train engines, rifles and more. A special treat for young ones is the LEGO Millyard Project, "the largest permanent LEGO installation at minifigure scale in the world." About three million LEGO blocks and 8,000 figures were used to recreate the Millyard. Fittingly, you will find the model in the same mill building it depicts at the See Science Center.

Horace Greeley fabric from the 1872 presidential campaign. (courtesy of Amoskeag Mill Collection-Manchester Historic Association)

The Manchester Historic Association also houses and preserves an amazing library of fabric swatch books from the Amoskeag Mills in its Research Center. The library has many other books documenting the history of the mills and the city. Of course, the swatch books were the most exciting to my fellow quilt scholars and me. Swatch or sample books are amazing history documents containing actual fabric pieces. The mills used them to document the fabric designs as they were printed. It was thrilling to see fabric created for the successful 1872 Presidential campaign of Civil War Gen. Ulysses S. Grant with his "Let Us Have Peace" slogan. And in honor of equal time, Amoskeag also printed fabrics honoring Grant's opponent Horace Greeley and his "What I Know About" slogan along with a beet. (That fabric refers to Greeley's book, What I Know about Farming).

Another Greeley fabric shows his signature hat and spectacles with his initials. It is delightful to learn about political history through these campaign textiles. The sample books are available for viewing by appointment.

The fabric and quilting world has not left Manchester or other former mill towns behind. Quilting is alive and well in the area led by the New England Quilt Museum in nearby Lowell, MA, a definite must see destination. And each spring Manchester hosts the Machine Quilting Exposition (MQX). There are classes, quilt exhibits, vendors, and much more. It is wonderful to see how this town has rebounded from the closing of the mills to become a vibrant textile destination once again.

Midwest readers – you don't have to head east to experience this quilty fun, as MQX Midwest 2018 will be held in Springfield, IL, Sept. 19-22, 2018.

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

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