Center Medallion quilts consist of a main panel surrounded by a series of borders. The center may be pieced, appliquéd, or made from a single block of printed fabric. Pieced versions, made mostly between 1820 and 1840, incorporate numerous small pieces recycled from clothing, curtains, or bed hangings.
The borders radiate in concentric bands- each successively wider- from the edge of the central panel to the quilt binding. The top edge that would be covered by the pillows may be either narrower or wider. The borders, of solid or printed fabrics, pieced or unpieced, provide a frame for the medallion and extend the quilt's size. Some examples alternate pieced and unpieced borders and created other patterns in pieced borders. These patterns were later recast as blocks to form a quilt's entire design.
The makers of Pieced Center Medallion quilts concentrated their efforts on the piecing and overall design. The large number of disparate fabrics made it especially challenging to balance colors. With so much patterning and without a solid white or neutral background, ornamental quilting would have been marginally visible. Many of these quilts are tightly quilted. but typically in simple patterns such as parallel diagonal lines or diamonds.
The use of recycled fabrics accounts for the scarcity of Pieced Center Medallion quilts in mint condition. By the time the fabrics made it into a quilt, many had already withstood 20 or more years of use with varying degrees of resiliency. The quilts themselves were functional pieces subject to further wear- some early examples have survived nearly 200 years. Despite their fragility and the frequent evidence of the ravages of age and use, Pieced Center Medallion quilts are a treasure-trove of early fabrics and are eagerly sought by textile historians and collectors.
In the cotton and linen quilt above, the center panel was not appliquéd. It was printed by John Hewson specifically to serve as a center medallion. Panels of his work are extraordinarily scarce. This, more than anything, makes this example an important piece.
The quilt above is cotton backed with linen and is very fine, with beautiful fabrics and excellent quilting. It falls into a lower-value category than the one above only because that one includes a center panel made by John Hewson.
Revolutionary Print Maker
John Hewson began his print works in England. In the mid- and late 18th century, England feared losing its textile manufacturing business to its colonies in the New World. To maintain the colonists as customers and forestall their becoming competitors, British law forbade exportation of tools, machinery, and plans for machinery that would make textile production possible.
In 1773, with the assistance of Benjamin Franklin, Hewson and his family moved to Pennsylvania. The following year, he opened a bleaching and printing business in Philadelphia. Hewson was blessed not only with extraordinary talent but also with a prodigious memory. He established his American factory from plans he had memorized in England. The British denounced him as a traitor. Undaunted, Hewson became an American patriot, fighting on the side of his new country in the Revolutionary War.
Hewson's printed fabrics were considered equal to, if not better than, the finest European versions. Among his prints were panels-usually depicting elongated, flower-filled urns surrounded by birds and butterflies- designed as the centers for quilts. He retired in 1810, but his print work was carried on by his son until 1825. Hewson's work is considered unparalleled in the history of printed fabric in this country.