A Vintage Quilt Label for your Next Crazy Quilt

Cindy Thury Smith © 2012

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Would you like a one-of-a-kind label for your next one-of-a-kind quilt? It’s as easy as a trip to your local library.

Prior to World War I, many advertisements in women’s magazines were linear drawings. While color-printing technology was available, it was expensive and time consuming, so many companies employed artists to do intricate linear drawings to advertise their products. These linear drawings transfer to fabric quite well, looking crisp on whatever color of fabric you transfer them onto.

What is the process to go from an early magazine advertisement to a fabric label?

To start, you need a digitized image of the ad. You can get this by Xeroxing a copy of the ad, and then using a computer scanner to digitize it into your photo manipulation program, or taking a digital photo of the advertisement and loading it into your computer. Depending upon the age and condition of the original magazine, your library may not let you make a Xerox copy of the page; they may prefer to have the librarian handle the magazine/book. If they do let you handle the magazine/book, I advise you to be careful as the pages are old and not printed on the best quality paper in the first place. Taking a digital photograph is no problem, but you need a steady hand to get a good result. I have gotten consistently sharper results using a Xerox copy.

If you do not have a digital scanner, I sincerely encourage you to get one as they have many creative possibilities. They also have many practical applications, as I’ve recently discovered when scanning and forwarding many photographs from my mother’s photo albums. She passed away in 2011, and the responses I’ve received from her siblings after I’ve sent them copies of her photos have been sincerely heartwarming. Digital scanners have come down in price and improved in quality quite a bit in the last five years.

Once you have the image in your computer’s photo manipulation program you will need to clean up the image and sharpen the contrast. Here are the steps, in order, I perform when cleaning up an advertisement:

  1. Straighten the image. I rarely get an image perfectly square with the screen, so I have to rotate it. On my computer I click on Image on the upper toolbar, and the drop down menu includes the command Rotate. I click on Rotate and the options appear: Free Rotate, Rotate 90 Clockwise or Rotate 90 Counter-clockwise. You will want to choose the option “Free Rotate” which will allow you to type in how many degrees you want the image to rotate right or left. It will take you a few attempts to learn to estimate how many degrees to rotate. Don’t get discouraged, you will pick this up quickly. It’s like learning to visually distinguish between 1/8” and ¼”.
  2. Once the image is straight with your view screen, you need to crop the image to eliminate excess text/images you don’t want appearing on your label. The crop symbol will be on the toolbar in your photo manipulation program; it looks like this:

    Below we have the raw scanned image of an advertisement for Burnett’s Vanilla taken from a Ladies Home Journal magazine and the cropped image.


  3. Your next steps will be adjusting the image . When I click on Adjust, one of the options on the drop down menu is Brightness and Contrast. Basically what this does is darken the lines and whiten the background. I prefer to adjust the contrast in several small increments rather than go too far (which will wash out your dark lines). It is not at all unusual for me to adjust the contrast 5-7 times.

    At this point, your image will be pretty clean but you will still have to remove text and dusty areas by hand using the Eraser tool on your toolbar. The Eraser Tool in my photo program is shown as an image of a pencil with an eraser on the end. When you click on it a pencil will appear, you then move it around the image erasing. Once you have clicked on the tool, look on the side or top toolbar for an indicator of the size of the eraser. You can enlarge the erasing area if you have a lot of text to erase or you can shrink the erasure area if you are going in amongst details in the design.

    By waiting to erase until after you have adjusted the contrast to get a white background, you will get white erasures which don’t appear any different than the white background. If you erase before cleaning up your background you will get “smudges” which will have to be removed later.

  4. In the Burnett’s Vanilla sample you will want to remove all the text in the center of the image. Erasing is cumulative; if you start erasing and get all the way to the end of the text, and then you accidentally stray into an area you don’t want erased, when you hit Edit Undo, it will bring back all your erasures from the beginning. So rather than erasing for sixty seconds, erase in smaller units so if you have to undo, you don’t end up going back to the beginning. It is also easier on your hands.

    In the sample above, I chose to erase the cake near the bottom of the image. I felt it wasn’t relevant to the quilt label. You have control over how much erasing is done and can get several labels out of one image by erasing more or less.

    Also, in the sample above, I chose to erase the dusty area within the curlicues at the top of the image. This took careful erasing, and I enlarged the image (View image, Zoom In) so I could get in and around the curved lines. The final label image is below:

When I printed out this label to fit onto an 8.5" x 11" sheet of fabric, the internal area available for wording measured 5” wide by 2” high (top curved area), and 2.5” wide by 6” high (lower area). I would probably put the basic information (title of the quilt, my name, year completed and size) in the top cartouche and the reason/history of the project in the lower area.

Book dedication pages are another source for images to make into quilt labels. The image below is the dedication page to a book on men from Dakota County, MN that served in WWI. This image was a simple one to clean up and this image would be an easy one to add color to by simply coloring in between the lines using Pigma pens. The original and the cleaned image are below.

When you are looking through old magazines you will notice some companies advertised every issue; you can get a variety of advertisements in a short period of time. Both the images below were advertisements for Ivory Soap.

If you have access to cabinet cards (19th century photographs that were affixed to stiff cardboard backings), flip them over to look at the backs of the cards. Photographers would order the cardboards in specific sizes with pre-printed designs on the back. The photographer would then stamp their studio name and address in amongst the pre-printed design. Frequently, these pre-printed designs are ornate and make nice labels.

Usually, I try to get a clean background, but sometimes I leave more in the label. In the label below I liked the subtle floral background and thought it would print well onto pastel fabric.

While you are paging through the magazines looking for advertisements, take note of the decorative headers and footers on articles. One of my favorite headers was from Ladies Home Journal magazine, March 1899, shown below.

So now that you have a great image for your quilt label, what information should you put on it? At a minimum you should include your full name (including your maiden name so you can also be identified by genealogical records), your city and state, the name of the quilt and the year completed. If you have room you can also tell why you made the quilt, if it was given to someone to celebrate an occasion, and maybe a little background on the pattern/technique. A quilt label helps provide provenance for the future and also increases a quilt’s value.

You can print out these labels onto pre-treated fabric sheets which you can buy at your local quilt store or fabric store, but you are then limited to their fabric choice and colors. I prefer treating 100% cotton fabrics with Bubble Jet Set. I can then choose whatever color of fabric I want to coordinate with my quilt.

I do not use freezer paper when printing on fabric. I use a piece of matte finish photograph paper as the backing to carry my treated fabric through the printer. Starting along the edge, halfway up on the left side I use doublestick tape going up to the upper left corner, completely across the top of the sheet and halfway down the right edge. I also put a small piece of doublestick tape in the lower left and right corners to hold the fabric in place but allow some movement of the fabric along the bottom edge. I feed the taped top edge into the machine and it prints on the fabric. I then grab the bottom free edge of the fabric, rip it off the sheet, stick another fabric sheet on and I’m ready to print again. You can use the matte paper usually about 12 times before it starts getting soft and may not feed through straight.

You can hand letter your labels, or your can use your computer program to print in the lettering. Try combining different letter fonts to get unique looking labels.

I hope this article will encourage you to try creating your own individual quilt labels.

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