The Ellen's Sewing Basket quilt is a reproduction of this antique quilt made in the first half of the 19th century in Kentucky by Ellen Morton Littlejohn. It is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's not an exact copy, as you can see, but it definitely captured the mood. What this antique has besides great color, symmetry, and design is exceptional needlework. There is some stunning trapunto work in the corner blocks. This, and other Kentucky quilts of this era seem to have this same type of trapunto.
Details like this - the trapunto, the time frame, the geographic area are all clues to quilt historians. Now comes the good part. A century or more later these clues again will intrigue Barbara and fellow quilt historian Merikay Waldvogel.
In 1933 at the Chicago World's Fair there was a quilt competition. It was the granddaddy of quilt compositions. Sears, one of the sponsors of the World's Fair, and a great retailer of quilt fabric, called all the nations quilters to enter. Over 24000 of them did. It was the depression after all, and the prize money was stunning. $1200.00 was the first prize and at the time $1200.00 could buy a lot. There were many beautiful quilts made, most in the Art Deco style of the time, but one was kind of a throw back. The grand prize winner was an eight pointed star repeated against a green background with trapunto in the corner squares.
"It was the handsomest piece of needlework imaginable. Swathed in cellophane, it hung suspended full length in the display room of Sears and Roebuck's exposition along with dozens of other gorgeous specimens, and on it proudly fluttered the prize ribbon....It was really the remarkable padded quilting which made this quilt so exquisite." Louise Fowler Roote - quilt columnist for Capper's Weekly
You might never guess the relationship of this quilt to the one made by Ellen Morton Littlejohn, until you discovered a few more facts. Eight pointed star; trapunto, Kentucky made. There was that Kentucky thing again. It seems if you wanted to make a special quilt and you were from Kentucky - eight pointed stars and trapunto was the way to do it. What other facts connect the quilts? Barbara and Merikay aren't sure, but it is interesting, isn't it?
Oh, and do you want to hear the scandal about it? No big quilt get-together happens without a scandal. You all know what I'm talking about......
The rules for the competition were pretty basic. Each contestant could enter only one quilt. Quilts had to be bed size and the work of the entrant. They could be of original or traditional patterns. Also, there were no rules against entering a quilt purchased as a kit. What was the scandal? Basically, this prize winning quilt entered by Margaret Rogers Caden of Lexington Kentucky - was found to NOT be made by her. No, Ms. Caden of Lexington Kentucky owned a renowned gift shop that specialized in custom linens and hand made quilts. Her staff made this quilt. **Price Is Right Loser Horns** You probably know the rest of the story, none of the employees who actually made the quilt shared in the prize money or got credit. As you might expect - the ladies who did this work for the shop during the depression depended on this employment to feed their families. So sometimes, in quilts - and in other endeavors - Life Is Not Fair. Thankfully, we know the story today. We know it because of the great work of quilt historians like Barbara Brackman and Merikay Waldvogel. You can read much more about this and other winning quilts of the 1933 World's Fair in their book - Patchwork Souvenirs of the 1933 Worlds Fair.
Thanks for the good story, Barbara!