Anne of Green Gables - Cotton Warp Quilts

Saturday, November 13, 2010
A few years ago I was rereading the Anne of Green Gable books when I ran across this passage:
"Yet with all this Mrs. Rachel found abundant time to sit for hours at her kitchen window, knitting "cotton warp" quilts - she had knitted sixteen of them, as Avonlea housekeepers were want to tell in awed voices."
Anne of Green Gables
Chaper I
Later in the series there are references to the quilts as spreads and having patterns:
"Mrs. Rachel has given you one of her beloved knitted quilts of the tobacco stripe pattern and she says when I am married she'll give me one, too."
Anne of the Island
Chapter XXIX

" 'I'm going to give Anne two of my cotton warp spreads,' she
resumed. 'A tobacco-stripe one and an apple-leaf one. She tells me they're getting to be real fashionable again' "
Anne's House of Dreams
Chapter II

So what was she knitting and what was she knitting it with? It took me awhile to do the research and even longer to write a blog post but this question pops up periodically in knitting forums and it is always answered in pieces. So I've collected those pieces, added a little research of my own, and hope to make a one post comprehensive answer. Here goes:

The Annotated Anne of Green Gables By Lucy Maud Montgomery, Margaret Anne Doody, Mary E. Doody Jones and Wendy E. Barry has the following note to "'cotton warp' quilt" :
"A particular type of yarn sold in stores and identified as such on the label. When it first came in, in the 1820s, this very soft yarn was used principally for weaving. What Mrs. Lynde makes is, strictly speaking, not a quilt but a bedspread. The common way of making such spreads with cotton or other thread is to knit squares on the bias and stitch them together, but Mrs. Lynde's quilt knitting involves elaborate lacy patterns. Montgomery herself knitted three such patterned quilts (see Appendix, "Homemade Artifacts")."
And the Appendix passage which is from Montgomery's 1914 journals:
"Today I began to knit a quilt...There have been so many days lately that I could do absolutely nothing,...Now, knitting has always had a good effect on me when I was I began the quilt. It doesn't matter if I never finish it. Quilt knitting in this particular pattern especially always makes me think of Malpeque. I spent a winter there once with Aunt Emily. Every girls and woman in Malpeque had knitted, was knitting, or intended to knit a quilt -- some of them several quilts. They possessed so many patterns and considerable rivalry went on. Lace knitting was very popular also. I caught the fever and began a quilt. I think I was three years knitting it. It was very pretty but wore out long ago. Ten years ago I knitted a second which I still have."
What was Mrs. Rachel knitting?
Mrs. Rachel was knitting a counterpane with cotton warp yarn. This activity became extremely popular from the mid 19th century thru the early 20th century and its popularity is also noted in this story from The Gentleman's Magazine, July to December 1893
"We sit round in a circle in the best parlour, and are very solemn, and tea is handed round. Then we talk--at least the others do; for until the men come the women talk about nothing else but recipes for bacon-pickles and knitted cotton counterpanes. They make the counterpanes in little square or oblong bits, which are afterwards sewn together. They each have a piece which they are knitting, and there are hundreds of patterns in which they may be done; they discuss each pattern, so it takes a good long time."
A Village Fragment
by Mary Hartier
What are Knitted Cotton Counterpanes?
A knitted cotton counterpane (counterpane, bedspread and coverlet are synonyms) is composed of squares, triangles, stripes or other shapes of knitted pieces that are sewn together to make a bed-cover. The word counterpane is also frequently used to refer to the patterned knit pieces themselves.

A knitted counterpane pattern from Godey's Lady's Book, July, 1860 (a modern pattern translation is here)

Additional knitted counterpane patterns:
  • Bedspread (Counterpane with Leaves)
  • Leaf Bedspread
  • Quilt (Square Counterpane with Leaves)
  • Rose Leaf Counterpane

  • Knitting Counterpanes: Traditional Coverlet Patterns for Contemporary Knitters by Mary Walker Phillips is a popular resource book for contemporary counterpane knitters.

    What are the patterns for Mrs. Rachael's counterpanes?
    The specific patterns used for the two counterpanes mentioned (A tobacco-stripe one and an apple-leaf one) are not known. Leaves are very common patterns used for counterpanes and there are many variations of tobacco and apple leaf patterns. Mrs. Rachael worked the tobacco leaf pattern in a stripe (a long narrow band) but the shape of the apple leaf pattern is not mentioned.

    What is cotton warp yarn?
    Cotton warp yarn is cotton spun to be a strong and durable yarn for use in the warp of a woven fabric. Cotton warp yarn was (and still is) an easily available and economical choice for knitting a bedspread, as well as other household items.

    The size of cotton yarn used for a counterpane would depend on whether a light or heavy bedspread was wanted. No yarn size specifics are given in the Anne of Green Gables literature or by L. Maud Montgomery. I provide it here for additional detail and interest.

    Cotton yarn size is given with two numbers and is best explained by Rachel Brown in her book The Weaving, Spinning, and Dyeing Book, ed.1987.
    "These are numbers by which yarn size and ply are described.... Cotton, linen, woolen, and worsted yarns can all be described by count. #1 describes the size of the yarn that will be produced when spinning a certain base yardage from 1 pound of fiber.... For cotton, No. 1 is the size thread that results from spinning 840 yards from 1 pound of cotton fiber. #2 would be the size thread if twice this yardage (1,680 yards) was spun from 1 pound of cotton... #10 would be a thread 8,400 yds long weighing 1 pound. So the higher the number, the finer the thread. This is single-ply thread.... When the thread is plied, the number of plies is given along with the thread size, as 10/2 (2 plies of #10 thread) or 6/3 (3 plies of #6 thread). The first number is the size of the thread and the second number tells how many threads of this size there are in the final plied yarn."

    Comparison Chart
    Cotton Yarn Size #Approximate Weight
    8/4DK (double knitting)

    That's it! I now know what Mrs. Rachael was knitting and why they were so highly valued. Someday I wouldn't mind knitting one myself.

    Update 10/3/2015: Read about my adventures in knitting a pattern square for a counterpane from the vintage book A Knitting-Book of Counterpanes.


    Amy said...

    This is fascinating!

    holly b said...

    I also wondered what Mrs. Lynde was knitting. Thanks for sharing your research. What amazing detail work. I can see now why her quilts were so highly prized!

    Unknown said...

    I've just finished rereading 'Anne of Green Gables' and was delighted to find your explanation of Rachel's cotton warp quilts!

    Anonymous said...

    Thanks for the research! I've recently been re-reading the Anne series for the first time since I was 12. In the years between, I've become a serious knitter, so I was very curious to see what these "quilts" were. Very interesting stuff.

    Anonymous said...

    Thanks for posting this - have just started a reread and was wondering what these lines referred to - croceht and knitting are my two big interests and I always like to find different patterns to challenge me.

    Anonymous said...

    I've read Anne of Green Gables many times, and never knew what these quilts were. Thank you so much for your research!

    Anonymous said...

    I just started Anne of Green Gables and had to look it up. My searchh brought me right here. Thank you!!

    Anonymous said...

    I too was wondering so this information is priceless!

    Lisa van Klaveren said...

    I've been a huge Anne fan since I was a pre-teen and even managed to marry my own Gilbert, lucky me! :) I'm a full-time crochet designer and stay-at-home mom to 3 little girls. I found your post while looking for some inspiration as I'm trying to come up with a name for a new afghan pattern I'm designing. I enjoyed reading your post very much! Thanks :)

    Anonymous said...

    I have been re-reading all the Anne books for about 40 years(and lately LM Montgomery's journals), and I could never picture the knitted quilts mentioned. I love to knit and quilt, and thanks to your research I am going to make a knitted "cotton warp" quilt, and feel that link to the Avonlea world that I love. Thank you so much.

    Unknown said...

    This is great, thanks so much! I love to knit and I have loved those books for years, but never had figured out what they were before. I appreciate your research and sharing!

    Christine said...

    I just re-read the books for the first time since the internet was widespread, and realised that this information would be readily available. Thank you for presenting it here - this is much more comprehensive (and easier to gather) than I expected to find.

    Given that Mrs. Lynde's feat of making 16 of the cotton warp quilts was clearly quite impressive, I suspect that she must have been using a fairly fine yarn.

    Anonymous said...

    Thank you!!! :)

    Anonymous said...

    Thanks so much for pulling together this great information!

    Aunt Jo said...

    When I was quite small we would go to Nova Scotia and stay with my Aunt Emma. Her house was bigh on a bluff overlooking the Bay of Fundy. She had knitted counterpanes on all the beds. They were knitted from a very soft cotton "yarn" and,were usually squares stitched together. Most were white but she had one that was in shades of off white and a taupe. It was striped. There was no leaf design but i remember an all over pattern.
    I remember it because i slrpt under it in the window bed.
    Perhsps that is the "tobacco " stripe?

    Anonymous said...

    One of my favorite book series to read, and being an avid crocheter/knitter, I had a small idea of what Mrs. Rachel was up to. I have found many crocheted coverlet patterns and suspected that there might be knitted ones around, as well, though I had never seen one. Thank you so much for the information. Another facet in the twin gems of favorite books and much loved hobbies!

    E. Swan said...

    Thank you for this well thought out blog post!

    NeoSerenity said...

    I too am reading the Anne Of Green Gables series and was curious what she was discribing. Thank you for sharing your research! I think it's neat that all of us were brought together by our curiosity about a small phrase in the same book. Power of words!

    Jenny B said...

    Thanks so much for this post! As a result I knitted a 'leaf bedspread' in 4ply cotton. I had a bit of a laugh when I googled tobacco leaves and realised that it probably really is a 'tobacco stripe'. Thanks again for a lovely year worth of knitting (my goal was to enter it in my local agricultural show). Here's a link to some photos of the finished project:

    Unknown said...

    I am just now at age 60 reading Anne of green gables!
    I have always loved quilts and quilting but did not know what the lovely Mrs Racheal was knitting. Thanks for your reserch.

    Unknown said...

    I have the apple leaf pattern in a collection of my patterns.

    soap_suds400 said...

    I have been re-reading the Anne books myself, and have been so interested in Mrs Lynde’s quilt spreads. Thank you for your research and answering my questions ☺️

    Anonymous said...

    I was reading that exact passage a few moments ago and decided to Google it, as I was curious myself. And the first link I clicked on after typing in "cotton warp quilt" began with that exact pas
    sage . Thank you so much for doing the research and being so Similarly minded.

    Anonymous said...

    Thank you so much! I have been looking for these patterns off and on for years. I think I need to start a counterpain for my self this year.

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