A Common Question: "How can you tell hand embroidery from machine embroidery?"
For someone who sews this is an easy answer, but many collectors of fine linens never picked up a needle in their life. You don't need to know how to embroider in order to appreciate the beauty, work, and skill involved.
The easiest way to tell if a piece is machine embroidered or hand embroidered is to turn it over onto the backside and look for the bobbin thread. A sewing machine sews with 2 threads, one on the top, and one on the bottom…so if you see that bottom thread, then the embroidery (or any sewing) was performed by machine. Most often that bobbin thread is a thinner white thread and easy to differentiate when your top stitching is a different color. It might be harder to discern when your top stitch is also white. So check to see with a magnifying glass if the thread is the same thickness and quality as the top thread. Also, if you see little knots or thread tails, that can be indicative of hand work.
Feature Article: "Interesting Facts about Colors in Quilts"
When I try to date a quilt, the first thing I look at is color. It's what really jumps out. Color can make or break a pattern. Color can make a quilt 'move'. I see olive green and yellow and think 1970s. I see pink and turquoise and think 1950s. I see pretty pastels and think Depression Era. Now of course, there are exceptions and that is where prints, pattern, and construction are considered...quilts cannot be dated by color alone. But color is a great starting point.
Black fabrics or mourning prints were popular during the Victorian Era, 1890s-1900s. Prussian blue (or Lafayette Blue) is an indicator for 1830-1860. Whereas cadet blue indicative of 1890-1925.
Purples were a difficult color to obtain on cotton, shades of purple were accomplished in the 1850s, stronger purples during the mid 1870s. These purples were often fugitive, they didn't hold their color when exposed to certain elements like light and water, and many of these fabrics have now faded to pink and brown. If you have an early quilt with purple, keep it out of sunlight!
Greens often faded to browns, blues, and yellow. Green was another difficult color to obtain. Early attempts used an overdyeing process…dyeing a fabric blue and then yellow, or yellow and then blue. A single process green was not discovered until the 1870s…so if you have a quilt with a fabric that has green fading to blue or yellow, it could very well be from before the 1870s.
I have been meeting with a quilt study group the past few months, and the color that always seems to start a conversation is one called Centennial Green or mint green, printed during the mid 1870s. It was a 'new' color for me, and now a specifically look for it in quilts.
Some colors span decades: browns, indigos, yellows, pinks, and reds. They take a little experience to date. If you wish to expand your knowledge about the colors in quilts, how they were dyed, and printed, I recommend Barbara Brackman's "Clues in the Calico" and Eileen Trestain's "Dating Fabrics 1800-1960". Ms. Trestain recently published a part 2 to her Dating Fabrics book concentrating on 20th century fabrics.