Quilts and Their Role in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Life
Children and adults alike continue to be fascinated by the engaging tale of what life was like during the pioneer era. In an age when people had to make do to survive, quilting played a natural and vital role. Sewing skills, in general, were important in the lives of women on the prairie.
Caroline Ingalls understood the importance of teaching her children to sew. In a time before central heating, when a warm home in the winter might only be 55 degrees, having a large number of quilts was a matter of survival. Quilts were not only used for bedding, but they were also hung in windows and doorways to block drafts.
They were hung from ropes to create ‘divisions’ in an otherwise one-room cabin, providing privacy in cramped quarters. They were also used as padding to protect precious belongings when traveling cross country.
Caroline’s marriage in 1860 coincided with the start of the Civil War. Fabric production was put on hold while wartime needs were met. As precious bits of fabric, batting, and even thread was used to supply soldiers, the style of quilting changed to reflect the limited resources available. Whereas quilts of the 1850s were made of store-bought fabric, quilts of wartime America were made of precious scraps and recycled worn clothing.
By the time Mary and Laura were born in 1865 and 1867, not only had the War just ended, but Charles and Caroline were living in the wilderness. Trips to town were far and few between, and reserved for necessities. When clothing could no longer be cut down and remade, the fabric was then recycled into quilts. Pieces that were too tiny to be a piece of patchwork were sewn together to make a piece large enough to become usable in patchwork.
Quilts and Sewing Skills of the Pioneers
Quilts, very basically, are textile sandwiches, made up of a top layer, which is patterned, either by attaching shapes on top of a background fabric by a technique called appliqué or by sewing together geometric shapes of fabric to create a new cloth, which is called patchwork. The middle layer of the sandwich is the batting, and the bottom layer is the backing of the quilt.
Youngsters were taught to sew from the time they could hold a needle, sometimes as early as 3 or 4 years old. Popular patterns for children had simple designs that used squares as their main component, such as the Nine Patch. This is a pattern Laura talks of making, and one Mary was able to work with even after losing her sight.
Once basic sewing skills were mastered, other more complicated patterns could be made. Laura talks of making a Bear’s Paw quilt. The bias edges of the triangles, as shown in this Bear’s Paw block, made it a trickier block to sew. It was a challenge to keep the seams smooth and neat.
Colors of the day were typically those made with natural dyes, like the dyes described in this How to Create Green Dye post. Gradually, colors made with synthetic dyes that were colorfast became more readily available, and fabrics became more colorful.
The great wonder of these colorfast fabrics may explain why, over 50 years later, Laura was able to describe in great detail the fabrics used for dresses that she saw as a child. Here are some passages from Little House in the Big Woods:
“In the morning Pa was there. He had brought candy for Laura and Mary, and two pieces of pretty calico to make them each a dress. Mary’s was a china-blue pattern on a white ground, and Laura’s was dark red with little golden-brown dots on it. Ma had calico for a dress, too; it was brown, with a big feathery white pattern all over it.”
“Aunt Docia’s dress was a sprigged print, dark blue, with sprigs of red flowers and green leaves thick upon it.”
“Aunt Ruby’s dress was wine-colored calico, covered all over with a feathery pattern in lighter wine color.”
“Grandma’s dress was beautiful too; a dark blue calico with autumn-colored leaves scattered over it.”
The Development of Named Quilt Block Patterns
Quilts of the 1870s were typically what we would call scrap quilts today. Patterns were distributed through ladies’ magazines, often with no instructions. Because it was expected that women would know how to sew and how to fit pieces together, magazines often only showed a drawing of what was called “a patchwork block”.
The importance of quilts in Laura’s life is evident from her writing. While she mentions quilts over 70 times in her stories, there are only three patterns Laura mentions by name:
- Nine Patch
- Bear’s Paw
- Doves in the Window (the pattern Laura made for her hope chest)
In Laura’s youth, patterns were more often referred to in general terms. It wasn’t until quilt patterns were sold in mail-order catalogs of the 1890s that patterns were given individual names, and Laura’s reference to patterns by name is likely a result of her writing about the patterns many years later.
So while it has been long assumed that the Nine Patch quilts Laura speaks of were simply 9 squares sewn together, they may in fact have been many different patterns such as the Maple Leaf pattern above. Or even a Nine Patch variation. We may never know.
Quilting and Sewing Helped Laura Throughout Her Life
The sewing skills Caroline passed on to her children served them well. Laura wrote of having to redo stitching that did not meet with Ma’s approval. Caroline’s demand for perfection instilled a sense of pride and accomplishment in her children that carried over into other areas of their lives.
While sewing was not Ma’s favorite chore, nor was it Laura’s, there were several times that Laura ‘hired out’ to work for seamstresses in town. Through her sewing skills, she was able to contribute money to help send Mary to college.
And after the hardships endured by Almanzo and Laura in the early years of their marriage, she once again turned to sewing, using the money she earned to make a down payment on the 40 acres they bought in Mansfield, Missouri that became Rocky Ridge Farm.
And it was Laura’s proficiency in hand sewing that made a lasting impression on her daughter Rose. In the introduction to On The Way Home, Laura’s diary of their move from South Dakota to Missouri, Rose writes:
“One day my mother made sixty good firm buttonholes in one hour, sixty minutes, nobody else could work so well, so fast. And every day, six days a week, she earned a dollar.”
Little House on the Prairie Quilt Fabrics Brought to Life!
Now, these many years after Laura’s stories were saved for those of us who treasure them so, she continues to fire our imagination. In October of 2015, Andover Fabrics introduced three lines of Little House on the Prairie fabrics.
- Walnut Grove: Named for the town in Minnesota where Laura’s family settled in 1874, the Walnut Grove collection features prints from the era that their quilts would have been made from.
- Prairie Flowers: The quilts of the Little House on the Prairie TV show feature bold, bright prints that gave the show its life and color. The Prairie Flowers collection is a rainbow wave of calicos, inspired by the TV quilts.
- Scenics and Icons: Inspired by the illustrations found in the novels, this collection features iconic imagery such as the running girl, wagon, little cabin, and the majestic scenery. This is a natural finish fabric, paying homage to the rustic roots of Laura’s stories.
All of these fabrics have been sold out and are no longer available. You can find many Little House inspired fabrics at your local store or online. Look for the prints that inspire your pioneer spirit!
In 2015, Andover Fabrics invited me to create a quilt using fabric from their newly released fabric lines inspired by Little House on the Prairie. Using fabric from all three lines and blocks from my book Quilting with Laura, I created Little House Sampler.
The Little House Sampler pattern is a 22-page booklet containing directions for nine patchwork blocks that tell the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House adventures. Whereas Quilting with Laura is geared towards hand piecing, the Little House Sampler pattern uses all machine piecing techniques. The booklet includes a color photo of the quilt, as well as full-size templates for the blocks constructed from templates. Non-template blocks are constructed with precision machine piecing techniques. The detailed directions include step by step colored illustrations, making it good for all levels of quiltmaking experience, from the beginner to the advanced stitcher.
Linda Halpin has been teaching quiltmaking throughout the United States and Canada for over 40 years. A graduate of the Embroiderers' Guild of America’s Teacher Certification Program in Quiltmaking, Linda is author of seven quiltmaking books and numerous patterns. Her book “Quilting with Laura: Patterns Inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie Series” has something for every skill level.