Birds and Thistles flying high

Being away for multiple days over the past week and a half has seriously cut into my sewing and writing time, but snatching a few final hours here and there has finally resulted in the completion of one of my resolutions for 2012.  The bed hangings about which I wrote in January are finally complete.  I can’t begin to calculate the hours of planning and hand sewing which went into them, but I also can’t begin to explain the pure sense of coziness and security which they provide to anyone sleeping beneath them (that would be my husband and me!  Not sure what the cats think about them…)

So – how did I come to make hangings for a bed which is a “low-post” bed, not a tester (or four-poster) bed?  The story begins 15 years ago when I made the swag and jabot curtains for our bedroom out of Brunschwig & Fils Bird and Thistle patterned fabric.  I ordered lots of fabric to compensate for matching the pattern and for all the funny angles that swag and jabot curtains produce.  I ended up with quite a lot of fabric left over, some of which I used to make a dust ruffle.  The rest went into my fabric closet.

About three years later, our bed was borrowed by a local museum for an exhibit (we slept on a mattress on the floor during that time!), and it was displayed with a “flying tester” which they had made just for the bed.  A flying tester is a wooden frame on which hangings can be affixed; the wooden frame is suspended by ropes from iron hooks in the ceiling.

Here are the two wrought-iron hooks which we affixed into our ceiling. You can also see just a bit of one of the windows with the swag and jabot curtains.

This photo shows the roping which suspends the frame from the ceiling.

Although not common, in the 18th century flying testers were an ingenious way to dress a low-post bed for the winter – with heavy wool or linen  hangings – or in the hot summers – with airy curtains to keep the flying bugs out.  There is an example of a ceiling hook for a flying tester at Stenton in Philadelphia. (Stenton is the historic home of James Logan, 1674-1751, who was Secretary to William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania.)  And imagine my surprise when just recently I saw an ad in House Beautiful Magazine which showed a modern bed with a flying tester!

This ad for the Apple version of House Beautiful features a modern "flying tester".

After the exhibit was dismantled, we were generously offered the tester frame, which we wrapped in plastic and put in storage.  I started thinking how neat it would be to make hangings some day, but somehow the years passed by.  Perhaps I needed some inspiration to tackle what I knew was going to be a big, somewhat intimidating project.  Well – the inspiration came in two parts.  First I came across a pair of pieced pillowcases, which date to about 1800-1820.  One of the fabrics in them is – you guessed it – some 18th-century Bird and Thistle fabric (which was imported to America from England).  These pieces were in blue, not red like my curtains, which is one of several colorways in which the fabric is available now.

Can you see the blue bird and the vines and thistles nestled among the variable star pieced blocks?

Here is another view of the same pillow case. A hand-written note was attached to each one, which I left intact.

Because of the age of the pillowcases, and the visual quality of them, I had them framed so I could hang them as artwork in our bedroom.

Here is one framed case...

... and here is the other one.

Hmmmm – now wouldn’t Bird and Thistle-patterned bed hangings look so good with those framed cases flanking the bed?  The wheels in my brain were turning.

Inspiration number 2 came when the air-conditioning in our bedroom had to be replaced during a very hot summer.  Until the work could be completed, we moved into our grown son’s old room, where the AC was still going strong.  I had already made simple hangings for his tester bed  – and the pleasure of sleeping under that canopy convinced me that it was time to turn my thoughts into reality!

Here are some of the challenges I faced and how I made the hangings:

1)   After measuring and thinking and measuring some more, I knew I didn’t have enough fabric left over from the curtains to complete the hangings, although I was close!  I knew I could do some careful piecing and re-sectioning to match and cut out everything (three valences and the back curtain) except for the side curtains.  I went on eBay and found a length of the same fabric which would suffice for the side curtains, if I lined them in another fabric.  (The piece I found on eBay was of another dye lot, of course, but the difference was slight so I decided it would work.) I found a linen blend in solid red which I determined would be perfect for the taping (which would finish every exposed edge) and for lining the side curtains.

2)   I based my valence pattern on the shape of the headboard in reverse.  To compensate for the longer side valences, I added two more “scallops”, which fit perfectly mathematically!  That was the easiest part of the entire project.

Here is the end valence hung on the frame. Hopefully you can see the design of the headboard mirrored in reverse in the valence.

3)   I proceeded to apply the red taping (which I cut on the bias) to all the edges.  This was all handwork and every edge had to be sewn twice, once on the front and once on the back.

4)   I applied Velcro tape on the hanging edge of each piece. It doesn’t show if you apply it on the front side and flip it over from the top. I had already applied the rough Velcro side to the wooden frame by first gluing it and then stapling it.

Here is one of the side valences pulled away so that you can see how I applied the velcro.

5)   After I lined the side curtains and applied the bias tape to them, I attached brass rings, as one would do with an 18th-century-style “drapery” curtain.  Simple cotton kitchen string is attached to the ring at the front edge and threaded through the rest of the rings. That way the curtains can be drawn up and attached to the hooks on the top of the frame.

The brass rings, attached to the lining side of the side curtains are strung with cotton string.

Here you can see the placement of the brass rings, which determines the drape of the curtain when it is pulled up.

And here is one of the side curtains, shown pulled up and attached to hold the desired drape of the fabric.

6)   Voila – Project complete.  It only took about 12 years…!

All dressed up and nowhere to go!

One more photo to show the framed pillowcases on either side of the bed.

I’m very glad our 18th-century bed is finally dressed – and I’m pleased with the way it looks.  NOW I can get back to sewing mid-century styles instead of 18th-century ones!


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4 responses to “Birds and Thistles flying high

  1. It’s beautiful! (I’ve seen similar things like this using curtain rods hanging from the ceiling.) I know it’s got to feel like such a weight is lifted when you finish a project that you’ve had going for so long, and you can be so proud of this one! =)

  2. Thanks so much, Brooke! I was beginning to think I’d never finish this project – and it does feel great to have it complete!

  3. Mary


    That was an amazing project! What an incredible job and a beautiful ending! Thanks so much for sharing it. Loved reading about it.


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