An expert guide to 19th century Scottish quilts

17 May 2016
margaret-morrison-carnegie-67807.jpg Margaret Morrison Carnegie
Textile historian Janet Rae explores the history of quilts in 19th century Scotland, including a recently discovered quilt associated with the Crimean War.

When I contacted Abbotsford House near Melrose, I never envisaged that my query about patchwork quilts would produce such a remarkable ‘find’. It was the winter of 2012-13 and all of the artefacts from Sir Walter Scott’s former home had been removed while the building was being refurbished. A short time later, I watched in disbelief as a curator opened a long box and, beneath several rugs uncovered a unique Crimean military quilt (detail pictured right).

Military or soldier’s quilts, are made of uniform fabric. They were sewn between 1850 and about 1910 by soldiers, regimental tailors, convalescents or civilians attached to the military. Some have very intricate geometric patterns and the makers often recorded the number of patches and stitches. The colours are bright , reflecting the military clothing of the period, and red and black are often predominant. Material from uniform facings provided a much broader palette including white, yellow and green.

While a number of military quilts exist in UK museums and private collections most have distinct regimental connections. What makes the Abbotsford quilt unique is its centre panel with a papal flag and naïve reproductions of flags and motifs from the different countries involved in the Crimean conflict. The quilt was found in a hallway trunk and no records exist that give its provenance or explain its acquisition. Small squares of tweed are mixed with uniform material in the background and there are various thistles included as motifs which possibly hint at the nationality of the maker. How it came to be at Abbotsford House is another mystery!


Quilts made in wartime are among those highlighted in my new and wide-ranging book Warm Covers: A Scottish Textile Story. They contradict the perception of quilts as nothing more than homely domestic items made for warmth. Nineteenth-century Scottish quilts can be viewed as industrial records of the country’s once flourishing textile industry.  

Turkey Red print or plain fabric, for example, was embraced by quiltmakers who were able to create brightly-coloured bedcovers that did not bleed their colour. Wool found in sample books was also coveted. While proving exceptionally warm wool quilts did not, however, have the longevity of a cover made of cotton or linen.

 Some quilts have very personal and important historical associations. One such story revolves around Andrew Carnegie and his formidable mother Margaret (pictured top). A Nine Patch silk quilt made by Margaret, while residing in a New York Hotel, says much about her relationship with her philanthropist son. The quilt’s reverse side (right) carries the inscription ‘Andrew Carnegie 1882, From Mother’.

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In his autobiography, Andrew Carnegie gives numerous accounts of his mother’s role in supporting the family through its difficult rise from poverty to success. She was first and foremost always his ‘heroine’. ‘Perhaps some day I may be able to tell the world something of this heroine but I doubt it’, he wrote. ‘I feel her to be sacred to myself and not for others to know. None could ever really know her – I alone did that. After my father’s early death she was all my own.’

Four years after the quilt was made Margaret Carnegie and her son Tom died of typhoid fever. Andrew Carnegie, weak and recovering from the same fever, lost no time in planning his future. Five months after his mother’s death he married Louise Whitfield who he had courted for seven years. The quilt is now in the collection of the Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum in Dunfermline.

About the author

Janet Rae is the author of Warm Covers: A Scottish Textile Story, published by Sansom and Company at £25 (170pp, 140 illustrations). The book takes an overview of Scotland’s rich engagement with textiles, and using quilts as illustrations, explores themes including the impact of Turkey Red dye, the development of needlework education and the contribution of suffragettes in advancing textile design and competency.

Images: Crimean quilt image by Alan McCredie, courtesy of Abbotsford Trust; Margaret Morrison Carnegie and Carnegie quilt copyright Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum, Dunfermline)