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A Japanese American Quilt–or Kotatsugake?

Written on August 9, 2011

This is puzzling.   And before I get started here, I have to admit, and I am embarrassed to say, that I don’t know anything about American quilts.  This fact is even more embarrassing when you read more details, below.
I recently bought this square-shaped American quilt or coverlet: clearly it’s been pieced from suiting material, probably in the 1930s or 1940s.  

But what’s really interesting about it is that this coverlet is backed with Japanese cotton fabrics, again, probably dating to the 1930s or 1940s.What makes it even more interesting–to me, at least–is that I was told it was acquired from Berks County, PA, where I was born and raised until I graduated from high school.   And many of you know that Berks County is part of the Pennsylvania Dutch country and has a history of quilting.  Which is why my lack of knowledge about quilts is hard to admit.One more odd detail is that my home town of Reading, PA is recognized by a very unusual feature, a Japanese-inspired pagoda that sits atop Mt. Penn and is the symbol of the city.This is not to say that Reading has anything to do with Japan or Japanese culture, it just adds layers of intrigue and coincidence to this unusual Japanese-American coverlet.This coverlet is quite heavy, as heavy as a kotatsugake, and it’s the same shape and size.  So the question is, is this an American coverlet that is backed with Japanese fabrics, or is it a Japanese kotatsugake that has been customized using American cloth and quilting techniques?I’ll have to do some non-invasive textile archaeology to find out more about this very unusual textile.

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9 Comments

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  1. Comment by lisa Jurist:

    Very interesting post indeed..as a PA native with family residing in Berks County, I have to admit that dutch hex signs are more the style of art that comes to mind. This beautiful quilt appears as two different pieces depending on the side one views…looking forward to hearing more…

    August 9, 2011 @ 1:58 pm

  2. Comment by eliza:

    most older american quilts using suiting fabric would have used scraps. so if the fabric itself is from the 30’s the quilt could be from the 40’s or 50’s. it certainly looks american. where i grew up in NJ there were a few kids whose grandparents had moved to the area after being interned during WW2 (george nakashima moved to bucks county, PA.) it seems quite possible that it was made by a japanese american, or an american woman that got the scraps from a japanese american friend.
    this quilt is a great example of why i collect old american quilts, the mystery of why it was made, by whom, and when.

    August 9, 2011 @ 4:08 pm

  3. Comment by Grace:

    Suit factories and fabric mills used to sell wool scraps cut into rectangular “bricks”. Those are the origins of the brick-style quilts. Wales is particularly rich in surviving brick quilts.

    August 9, 2011 @ 6:38 pm

  4. Comment by Victoria:

    Whatever the actual story may be, it’s a wonderful piece! And don’t feel bad… I live in Northern Lancaster County, (5 minutes from the Berks County line), am a quilter, past visitor to the pagoda, and frequent visitor to antique and vintage shops, and I don’t have a clue either!

    I have seen examples of wool patchwork quilts with this type of stitchwork, (circa early 1930’s) and am wondering if this could possibly be a Mennonite quilt started in the 30’s, and finished in the 50’s with textile work brought back from Japan, possibly from a missionary trip?

    Another possibility is that it has nothing to do with the Pennsylvania Dutch, (obviously there must have been some non PA. Dutch woman living in the Berks area who also quilted!) and maybe was made by a Japanese woman who came to the area as a war bride and was influenced by American scrap quilts, or she simply completed a quilt top started by someone else in her husband’s family but which had never been backed and finished.

    Wonderful questions that this work asks. Have fun digging into the mystery!

    August 9, 2011 @ 7:54 pm

  5. Comment by velma:

    this quilt tells a story, if only you can decipher! what i like so much is how it tells you some of YOUR story, and perhaps opens a window, a patch, a puzzle for you to learn.

    August 10, 2011 @ 4:19 pm

  6. Comment by kaari meng:

    A few years ago at Rosebowl, I bought what I thought were two Japanese noren panels – only to discover an early American patchwork quilt used as the inside padding! I have always wondered what the story was and how the two came to be married together. I imagined it was a quilt sent to Japan or taken by a missionary and then given as a gift…maybe the receiver didn’t appreciate the handwork and thought it was more useful as a batting…who knows!

    August 10, 2011 @ 4:34 pm

  7. Comment by Kim Baird:

    This type of quilt was popular in the 1930’s here in North Dakota, and elsewhere as well. This was the only time in US history that it was actually cheaper to make a quilt than to buy a bedspread, since money was so scarce. I know of 2 sources for the wools used: sample books obtained from the local general store and vests.
    The store would have books of rectangular suiting samples. Men could choose the style and fabric of their suit, and the store would order it in for them. I have a photo of one of these.
    I spoke to a woman during our ND quilt project survey of old quilts. She explained that her husband and sons always got 3-piece suits, but they never wore the vests. So she cut them up to use in quilts like this one.
    I would assume that these sources were supplemented by the household scrap bag.
    The herringbone stitch embroidery on your quilt is sometimes found on these pieces. It is a carryover from the Victorian crazy quilt fad, which morphed from silks and velvets to wools and heavy cottons during the early 20th century. (Later, the techniques was done with pastel prints.)
    I found a group of unusual wool quilts made by a Metis man in Canada during the 1920’s. They are recycled wools, machine embroidered but joined by the same herringbone embroidery, and backed with burlap flour sacks which have been dyed red.
    I wish we could know the story of your quilt, and where the Japanese fabrics come in. It could have been made in an internment camp, but equally as likely is that someone (tourist or soldier) had brought fabrics from Japan, which were later used for this.

    August 11, 2011 @ 12:25 pm

  8. Comment by Stephen:

    Your comments have all been so interesting and informative. Thank you for your interest, and for taking the time to share your knowledge.

    August 12, 2011 @ 12:50 pm

  9. Comment by Jesse Lu:

    I had the same thought as Eliza. I would bet money this is a physical manifestation of the American melting pot- the beautiful craftwork of a mid-century Japanese-American quilter. How awesome!

    August 13, 2011 @ 11:15 am