There is nothing quite as comforting as a well worn vintage quilt. It seems they have been around forever……well they have. The history of quilts goes far beyond America. Did you know Quilting, the stitching together of layers of padding and fabric, may date back as far as ancient Egypt? In Europe quilting appears to have been introduced by Crusaders in the 12th century, Russia holds the oldest example in existence. It is a quilted linen carpet found in a Mongolian cave. When we decided to research the history of quilts we were surprised to find it a little more in depth than we thought……quilts really do hold a special place in the history of America! We hope you find this condensed history from Quilting in America as interesting as we did!
In the United States quilt making was common in the late 18th century and early years of the 19th. Most women were busy spinning, weaving and sewing in order to clothe their family. Commercial blankets were a more economical bed covering for most people, so only the wealthy had the leisure time for quilt making. At this time quilts were not made of left over scraps or worn clothing as a humble bed covering. Instead they were decorative items that displayed the fine needlework of the maker.
By the 1840s the textile industry had grown to the point that commercial fabrics were affordable to almost every family. As a result quilt making became widespread. A great variety of cotton prints could be bought to make clothing and even specifically for making a quilt. Although scraps left over from dressmaking and other sewing projects were used in quilt making, it is a myth that quilts were always made from scraps and worn out clothing. Examining pictures of quilts found in museums we quickly see that many quilts were made with fabric bought specifically for that quilt.
When the United States entered World War 1 in 1917, quiltmaking became more important than ever. The U.S. government urged citizens to “Make Quilts – Save the Blankets for our Boys over There.” Quilts were made for fundraising and awareness building.
During the Great Depression, people simply did not have the money to buy blankets so once again women relied on their own skills and resources to keep their families warm. Saving bits and pieces of material from clothing and other blankets, using material from feed sacks, and “making do” were common practices for frugal quilters during those difficult years.
During World War 2, quilting was used to raise money to support the Red Cross. The “signature quilt” was especially popular. In a signature quilt, business people, store owners, and citizens of a community would pay a small fee to have their names embroidered on quilt blocks. The blocks were sewn together and quilted, and the finished quilt was raffled off with all proceeds going to the Red Cross.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, there was less general interest in quilting than at any other time in American history. To many, the quilt was associated with lean times and “making do” – quiltmaking was viewed as dated and old-fashioned.
Then in the 1970s and 1980s, the granddaughters of these older women began to revive interest in quiltmaking. The back-to-the-land movement, prompted by the anti-materialism of the late 1960s, generated a desire among many young people to learn hand skills that had been neglected in the postwar rush toward an automated society.
A milestone in American history, the Bicentennial celebration of 1976, was also a turning point in the history of quilts in America. The quilt became popular as a means of expressing national pride and achievement, and a powerful reminder of our past.
Now, in yet another century, quiltmaking in the early 2000s is still practiced as it always was, though now more for relaxation than out of necessity. Some quilters follow the craft in conventional form for leisure-time amusement or because it represents a tradition they find emotionally significant. Others have found in quiltmaking an artistic medium they can manipulate to their ends, and have ultimately created new styles and techniques.
The history of America can be seen in the history of quilts: in the rich heritage left us by those thrifty, self-sufficient women who helped settle this land, in the families whose history is sewn into quilts one patch at a time, and in the legacy of the quilting arts passed on to children and grandchildren so they may carry them forward to the future.