Discover Vintage America - FEBRUARY 2017

Small treasures: doll quilts fetch premium prices

Some of the most charming antique quilts are the small wonders made by little children for their dolls and doll beds. That these little quilts were often made as sewing practice pieces is clear by their primitive, haphazard stitching and lopsided piecing but somehow the imperfections are a large part of their charm. Nothing tugs at a collector's heartstrings like a sweet and humble doll quilt lovingly made by a tiny needle worker for her treasured dolly.

Three antique doll quilts from the Sandra Starley Collection, Left to Right, Flying Geese c. 1860, Nursery Rhymes c. 1930, and Nine Patch c. 1900.

In the 1800s, children (both girls and boys) often created doll or crib quilts as teaching tools for their young hands and minds. Sewing was a very necessary skill, primarily for young women at the time, and small doll quilts were perfectly sized projects on which to learn and practice those skills.
In 1831, The American Girl's Book noted: "Little girls often find amusement in making patchwork quilts for the beds of their dolls, some even go so far as to make cradle quilts for their infant brothers and sisters."

The most common patterns were simple pieced blocks such as nine patches and four patches but more challenging designs, as well as appliqué were also made. Particularly before the 1900s, these little hands were needed to help around the home with the sewing needs of large families especially out on the farm or on the frontier.

Sewing also helped teach young people essential mathematics, especially important if they did not have access to much formal education. Moreover, for many a busy mother, a child's focus on a sewing project for dolly allowed her to complete her own quilting and mending.

A small version of Courthouse Steps/Log Cabin circa 1890; 17" x 17" (Sandra Starley Collection)

In the more affluent areas, especially around Philadelphia and New York, in the early and mid-1800s, young women were attending "finishing schools," which focused on their moral, intellectual, and domestic education. An essential part of that domestic education was learning sewing skills such as needlepoint as seen in the schoolgirl samplers of the time as well as creating other beautiful handwork including quilts. Just as practical sewing skills were essential for farm girls; ornamental sewing was considered equally essential for cultured young ladies.

Before the sewing machine became common in about 1870, all the doll quilts were hand-pieced and hand-quilted. However, that rapidly changed and many of the doll quilts made around 1880 to 1900 were machine quilted. Machine quilting appears on these small quilts in much higher percentages than in full sized quilts of the era.

Perhaps, piecing or sewing lessons were the main goals and the quilting was secondary so they were machine quilted for a quick finish or to help with short attention spans.
Of course, not all doll quilts are primitive as many children quickly learned to create skilled work. In addition, many of the exquisite small treasures were made as gifts for cherished children by loving grandmothers, aunts, and family friends.

Collectors note:

Several years ago, there was a craze for crib and doll quilts and many full sized quilts were "cut down" and rebound and passed off as doll quilts. So buyer beware; educate yourself on the characteristics of true antique doll quilts and check the bindings and borders to make sure it is a true small quilt.

While doll quilts require less display space and storage space, a desirable aspect, their small size does not mean a small value. Due to the hard lives that many dolls quilts faced as well as their charm, they are harder to acquire and often carry a premium price tag.

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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