Elizabeth Bennis. Picture cropped from the cover of her edited diary, which you can buy very cheaply here.
Elizabeth Patten was born in Limerick in 1725. The Pattens were an upper-middle-class Presbyterian family, headed by Isaac (d.1743). At the age of twenty, Elizabeth married her cousin Mitchell Bennis, an Anglican ironmonger and saddler, and began living in Bow Lane (near St. Mary’s Cathedral) close to his business.
She was 24 when she first heard a Methodist preacher in the street; shortly after this she felt a strong vocational calling to the Methodist cause. She joined the Limerick Methodist Society, and remained a leading member for the next forty years, becoming its leader in 1753. Her extensive correspondence with John Wesley (founder of Methodism) was published soon after her death (two of his letters to her have been digitized in great detail here, and more of his letters can be read online here). She was a real force of nature in establishing the Methodist movement in Ireland, and kept up correspondence with many other leaders in the field as well. This included fellow Limerick native John Stretton, who was converted by Elizabeth to the cause, and who emigrated to Newfoundland in the late 1760s to establish Methodism there.
Wonderfully for us, Elizabeth kept a diary for thirty years, and this was recently discovered, edited, and published. She spent her life in eighteenth-century Limerick working for the Methodist cause, raising four children, and helping her husband in his business. It was a full life, one of ordinary domesticity that balanced out her passionate spirituality.
Cotton applique counterpane quilt made by Elizabeth Bennis. Given to Winterthur Museum by its founder, Henry Francis Du Pont. Source.
At some point in this busy life, probably in the 1750s, Elizabeth Bennis made this quilt. Just as her diary did, her needlework gives us lots of clues into her lifestyle, and the kind of person she was. She may have sewn this quilt up as part of the Limerick Methodist Society women’s group, or as a gift for one of her children, or even as an exercise in mindful prayer, much like modern prayer-quilting.
The Bennis family were well-off. If Elizabeth had been making bedcovers from need, she would have woven it from wool. Instead, this was a luxury item – a creative outlet for a woman of comfortable means (and free time), that was made from expensive, imported materials. It is an example of a pre-industrial quilt, made before the industrial revolution had really begun, before the availability of cheap fabrics or sewing machines. Elizabeth used cotton in this quilt, for example, before the cotton gin had been invented. This was not a plain quilt made from scraps of used fabric – it was a canvas to show off her skills, her wealth, her status in life, and ultimately her identity.
Elizabeth’s design was a standard medallion style quilt, centred on a Tree of Life. The patchwork block-style quilt that people are perhaps more familiar with now, did not come into its own as a popular style until a century after Elizabeth was working on this piece, dependent as it was on the cheap availability of many patterned fabrics, and on the rise of the sewing machine. The Tree of Life (also known as a ‘flowering tree’) and images of birds were both commonly appliqued images in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It is likely that the fabric from which Elizabeth cut the bird shapes was produced in by Bannister Hall Printworks in Lancashire/ Carlisle (now Stead McAlpin Specialist Textile Printers). The images produced by Bannister Hall referenced palampores, contemporary painted bedcovers that were being produced in India and exported widely. Here’s a palampore which shows a Tree of Life and a peacock, just as Elizabeth’s quilt does.
1773 letter from Wesley to Elizabeth. “My dear sister… And when you write, encourage Mr Slater to do at Waterford as he did at Limerick.” Image source.
In 1768, Elizabeth’s daughter Eleanor married Jonas Bull and moved to Waterford. Elizabeth visited her frequently there. As she had done with Limerick, she kept Wesley informed of the progress of the Methodist movement there. In a letter dated 8th July, 1770, which asked Wesley to send a stationed preacher, she said
I feel much for the city society – a handful of poor simple souls, that need every support and encouragement. Dear Sir, I hope you will not think me too presumptuous in dictating, but I find my soul knit to these poor sheep.
Elizabeth’s husband Mitchell died in 1788, and the family entered some financial difficulty. In 1790, Elizabeth moved to Waterford to be nearer Eleanor. In the early 1790s, at the age of 69, she made the startling decision to emigrate to America. The long ocean crossing was treacherous and arduous. Her son, Thomas and his wife, Ann, went with her. They landed safely however, and Elizabeth lived in Philadelphia until she died in June, 1802.
Amazingly, she brought the quilt with her. It is currently housed in Winterthur Museum, Delaware, U.S.A, just thirty miles down the road from where she settled in the 1790s.
Huge thanks to Rosemary Raughter for emailing me her contextual essay to Elizabeth’s diary, which she discovered and edited. If you are of a mind to, you can buy a kit to make up your own version of Elizabeth’s quilt here.
EDIT: A local quilting expert has compared Elizabeth’s life story to Mrs Delany – see this link here. She has also recommended “Irish Patchwork, Catalogue of an Exhibition 1979” as a great source for Irish quilting history.