A “shirting” is simply a fabric which can be used to construct a shirt. The Sears Catalog no. 124 from 1912 offered several different fabrics called ‘shirtings’: flannel, cotton calicos, corded, small prints, madras plaids etc.(I can’t even imagine $.05/yard!!)
Most quilters have come to know ‘shirtings’ as a cotton fabric with small abstract, geometric, or figure prints. Most commonly the ground is white with the figures printed in one color.
A friend recently found a 5 yard chunk of shirting fabric from the 1890’s at a garage sale.
Frequently prints like these with black or brown designs show signs of disintegration because the aniline dyes over time oxidize (burn) the cotton fibers. In quilts we see prints with small holes the shape and size of the original design; or we see discoloration around the print. Did you know aniline was also used as a rocket fuel as well as a dye?
Many scrap quilts from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries contain shirting prints and stripes. I imagine that many a household kept the scraps after making shirts for the family. Here are some examples I found on Ebay:
Shirtings were used to make men’s shirts and women’s shirtwaists (a women’s blouse which had similar details to a men’s shirt). Although many households sewed their own men’s shirts and women’s shirtwaists in the home, the garment industry employed many in the manufacture of these garments. In 1911 the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire killed 145 workers, mostly teenage girls as they attempted to evacuate the building through narrow staircases only to find that at least one of the doors was locked from the outside. As a result of the fire, laws were changed to protect workers and to make factories safer.
Sears Catalog no. 124: https://archive.org/details/catalogno12400sear