The Quilts of Outlander

Whenever I watch TV, which is a rare occasion these days, I’m always on the lookout for quilts used in the show. Props departments have a tendency to use the least expensive, easiest thing to find when it comes to textiles, often sacrificing historical accuracy. Putting a style of quilt into a time period where it did not yet exist is a mistake that is often made. For example, patchwork quilts did not come into being until after the Industrial Revolution, when fabric became less expensive and more plentiful, yet it is not uncommon to see patchwork quilts on the beds of shows depicting the lives of Colonial Americans. I am a huge Outlander fan, and I was curious as to the accuracy of the quilts used in the show. The series author, Diana Gabaldon, is rather meticulous in her research, making sure that the story is as historically accurate as possible. I wondered if the props department on Outlander had been just as meticulous. For those of you not familiar with Outlander, it is the story of a WWII nurse named Claire who travels two-hundred years into the past with the aid of a set of standing stones in Scotland. In season five we find Claire and her family in colonial North Carolina living in the back-country wilderness, in a settlement called Frasers Ridge. In scrolling through the episodes, I saw four different styles of bedding, here’s what I found.

In the twig shed where they first lived before building the house, and where Murtagh hides from the Redcoats, we find animal furs, a rough, boiled wool blanket, and a knitted afghan. These would have been very typical for the time period and the location. Looks like the props department has been paying attention so far, let’s see what they’ve used in the cabin and the big house.

The cabin, which is the first real house they built, is now home to their daughter, son-in-law, and grandson. On the bed here we see an extremely ornate looking bed covering. It is a whole cloth quilt decorated with leaves, vines and other flora. At first glance it seems out of place, much too ornate for a cabin in the backwoods of North Carolina in the 1700’s. Style-wise though, it is accurate. It is a quilt done in the “broderie perse” method. Broderie perse literally translates to Persian embroidery, and involves the use of decorative chintz fabrics stitched onto whole cloth so as to blend in with the backroad fabric almost invisibly. This particular quilt has crewel embroidery on top of the applique`. Since colonial women barely had enough time to do the necessary mending, this quilt would seem out of place, but then we must consider Jamie’s wealthy aunt Jocasta, who lives on a plantation on the Cape Fear River. When they left her home to move into the wilderness, she sent a wagonload of provisions with them, so I must conclude that the quilt came from her.

Next, we move to the big house where Claire and Jamie live. In Claire’s surgery there are two beds covered with sheets and at the foot of each one is a folded, boiled wool blanket. Score another one for the props team, they got this one right too. Boiled wool has been around since the middle ages, with various methods being used to “full” or felt the wool. A woven or knitted blanket would be agitated with hot water and an alkaline soap. This expands the fibers and then pulls them together to create a blanket that is very warm and nearly impervious to wind and rain.

Going upstairs to the master bedroom, we find an example of applique`. Applique` is the technique of stitching one fabric on top of another to create a design. It differs from broderie perse in that the design is being made from multiple fabrics instead of a complete print being stitched down. This technique was in use during colonial times and the simple design we find on Claire and Jamie’s quilt is appropriate for the time and place. I do suspect this quilt came from Aunt Jocasta as well though, since Claire has proclaimed she’s better at sewing flesh than cloth.

Lastly, we look at the quilt baby Jem has in his basket. What I could see of it, which wasn’t much, looked to be patchwork. This one did make me wince a bit, since patchwork wasn’t popular until many years later, but it might possibly have been in use for smaller quilts, or it could have been a repair made of a whole cloth quilt. Since it’s a baby quilt, and didn’t get a good look at it, I’m going to let this one slide.

So, it seems my favorite show has done a pretty good job of keeping things fairly accurate. Not bad for a show filmed and produced in Scotland. There are a multitude of books and papers written on the history of quilts and quilting if you’re interested in reading more on the subject. Some of the information here came from the website, America’s Quilting History. And for all of my fellow Outlander fans who are trying to survive Droughtlander, November 23rd and the release of “Go Tell the Bees I am Gone” is right around the corner. In the meantime, you could be making a quilt of your own, something to wrap up in when that book finally arrives. Quilt classes are available by appointment and yes, even a beginner with no experience can make one. Here’s hoping we see you making one soon, and as always, I’m here to help.

Jo Beth

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