Discover Vintage America - OCTOBER 2018

Quilted with Love – Antique signature presentation quilts

Antique signature quilts feature blocks with names written, stamped, and embroidered in blocks. They are like fabric autograph albums and were popular between 1840 and 1870.

1858 Quilt made for Esther McAllister - Sandra Starley Collection

Many antique signature quilts were made by church groups as gifts or presentation quilts for beloved and special church members. While they were most commonly made for church leaders, they were also made for the wives of leaders. One might think that would be because of their station as the reverend's wife but it was also done because these women were valued on their own merit.

I have collected several "reverend's wife, pastor's wife" signature quilts circa 1850 that were definitely quilted with love and show deep respect for the honoree. I'll focus on one made in New York City in 1858 in this month's column. Check back for another one or two at a later date.

Detail of heart blocks - McAllister Quilt - Sandra Starley Collection

I purchased a red and white signature quilt dated 1858, New York City that clearly noted it was made for "Sister McAllister." I was initially stumped as to who she was, as her first name was not used on the quilt. Luckily, Miss Emily Hoyt's signature block had a notation for the "Willett Street Church." I was able to research that congregation and found that in the 1850s it was home to a Methodist Episcopal congregation and that Reverend William McAllister was the head pastor.

William was married to Esther McAllister and they were both first generation Americans. He emigrated from Ireland and she was from England. Her will shows that when she died, many decades after the quilt was made, she had several homes in New York and New Jersey. Research is continuing to learn more, as it is doubtful that the ministry paid enough for these real estate purchases in such high-income areas.

The quilt visually exudes love with all of the red appliquéd heart blocks. And it even has charming hidden hearts behind many of the block centers; something I've never seen before. The quilt inscriptions disclose that it was made for Sister McAllister because she was a beloved Sunday School teacher. One block is addressed as follows: "To My Bible Class Teacher." It goes on to mention a "mourning class" who is at a loss. But she had not died or moved away. It appears that Esther was such a great teacher and so special that her class was sad because she was no longer teaching them and they were moved to share their love and respect for her. The quilt is full of quotes from Methodist hymns and the Bible and it is obvious that Sister McAllister was a skillful teacher.

Former Willett St. Methodist Episcopalian Church (photo courtesy By Beyond My Ken - Own work, GFDL, www.commons.wikimedia.

It is interesting to note that the Willett Street Church, constructed in 1826 as a Methodist Episcopal church is still in existence almost 200 years later. However, it no longer houses Methodists. It is now a Jewish synagogue, specifically the Bialystoker Synagogue with Polish origins. That congregation was established in 1865 in New York City. They purchased the Willett Street building in 1905. In 1966, it was designated a New York City landmark. It is good to know that the place where Esther taught and William preached is still a vibrant house of worship and their legacy lives on.

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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