Candlewicks: White Embroidered Counterpanes in America 1790–1880


From Uncoverings 2015, Volume 36 of the Research Papers of the American Quilt Study Group


By: Bakkom, Gail

Abstract: “Candlewicks,” white embroidered counterpanes emphasizing raised stitches, comprise a portion of early-nineteenth-century American textiles neglected in researchers’ current focus on quilts, coverlets, and samplers. A few published photos demonstrate the unique quality of this work, but available texts reveal a lack of specific information and little or no context. This study, based on a database of 300 pieces (140 date-inscribed) created by the author, traces candlewicks from early dated examples in the 1790s through the technique’s popularity in the early decades of the nineteenth century, to its decline by 1880. Physical analysis provides characteristics in size, ground, patterns, and format. The influence of weaving, crewelwork, bed rugs, and wholecloth quilts combine to create a novel textural embroidery style, characterized by individual variations on common textile motifs. Genealogical research reveals that girls in their late teens and twenties were the primary creators; this avenue of research also provides family, community, and economic context for this study.

Gail Bakkom's interest in quilt and fabric history is a natural evolution of her career in theatrical costuming. She has worked at the Guthrie Theater, the Minnesota Dance Company, and the Minnesota Opera where, as costume-shop manager for twenty-eight years, she employed the full range of costuming skills, including design. She joined the Minnesota Quilt Project in 1996 and began documenting quilts, eventually serving as one of the coordinators and authors of Minnesota Quilts: Creating Connec­tions with Our Past, published in 2006. She co-chaired the 2010 AQSG seminar in Minnesota and has curated three very successful quilt exhibi­tions at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts.