Quilts are thought to have originated some 200 years ago in rural areas where women out of necessity turned patches of discarded cloth and clothing into bedcovers both decorative and warm. Comforting in its simplicity, the patchwork quilt embodies the best of the can-do American spirit.
Quiltmaking almost died out in the early 1900s, until a concern for preserving America’s own crafts led the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to open its American Wing in 1924. This prompted the first revival of collecting and making quilts.
The very modern American women of the 1920s rising middle class were newly able to afford ready-made clothing and dry goods and had to be persuaded. So women’s magazines promoted quiltmaking with images of smartly dressed women choosing quick projects such as patchwork pillows and ready-cut quilt kits.
In the 1930s quiltmaking surged again, this time because of the Great Depression. Making do was the order of the day, and creating quilts fit the bill. Mail-order companies and daily newspapers sold copies of hundreds of new patterns. Quilt contests attracted thousands of quilts, and not just from rural areas. Sales of thread, cloth and batting soared for a while.
Quiltmaking suffered its next decline during World War II when the domestic sale of cloth was restricted. At the same time, many women took wartime jobs out of their homes; when the war was over they weren’t enthusiastic about jumping back on the quilting bandwagon.
In fact, quilts and quiltmaking didn’t come back into vogue until the nation prepared to celebrate its bicentennial in 1976. Once again, the quilt was looked at as a way to inspire pride in America’s traditions and heritage.
That’s about the time I had my quilt awakening.
My modern mother sewed clothes for my sisters and me in the 1950s but never made a quilt. Although a modern young woman myself, living and working in a bustling, urban setting, I succumbed to the back-to- earth movement of the 1970s and learned to weave and knit. One Saturday morning in 1974 while I window-shopped, a brown-and-green North Carolina Lily quilt caught my eye and my heart. Its unconventional design and colors grabbed me.
I walked into that store, handed over $100 and walked out with a quilt under my arm. What have I done? I wondered. I’d spent a lot of money for a quilt that wasn’t even meant for my bed. I planned to hang it on the wall above my loom!
Without intending to, I had started a quilt collection that would soon grow and grow. I had also made a life discovery: I was so inspired by quilts, their makers and their stories, that I soon quit my job to research and write about quilts and quilting.
Back then I thought I was different from others because I decorated with oversized quilts, but I soon found a major quilt revival already under way, fueled by baby boomers who had discovered America’s folk heritage. In 1974 the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City organized a groundbreaking exhibit of quilts made by anonymous artisans. Stores with fabrics, tools, books and classes opened to serve the special needs of quilters. Quilt magazines provided patterns and support for the quiltmaking movement, and annual quilt festivals attracted tens of thousands of people.
Quilt guilds formed, including the American Quilt Study Group in Mill Valley, Calif., a network of quilt historians who exchange and publish their quilt findings. A nationwide grassroots campaign soon launched to record stories and photograph quilts.
The late-20th-century resurgence of interest in quilting prompted a plethora of books by academics and enthusiasts, exhibits across the country and documentary films chronicling quilting’s history, artisans, designs and their meanings, and techniques.
All this attention to America’s historic quilts has led to an increase in collecting and preserving quilts and a growing interest in quiltmaking that will continue for generations. And why not? Quilts have a magnetism all their own. Maybe it’s the familiarity of their components or the excitement of seeing the larger pattern emerge as the pieces are sewn together. Maybe it’s the storytelling that goes on around a frame or the joy of seeing hard work admired and loved. Maybe it’s the recognition of women’s ingenuity and craftsmanship. Maybe it’s the satisfaction of continuing a tradition and creating a legacy.