Today, there an estimated 21 million people participating in hobby quilting. The origins of which are deeply rooted in America’s history.
In the 17th & 18th century, during colonial times, only the wealthy had leisure time for quilt making, as such they were often decorative items that displayed the fine needlework of the maker. Commercial blankets or woven coverlets were a more economical bedcovering for most people. 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.
During this period the invention and availability of the sewing machine contributed to quilt making. In 1856, the Singer company started an installment plan so that more families could afford a sewing machine. By the 1870s, many households owned a sewing machine.
This affected quilt making in two ways. First of all, women could make clothing for their family in much less time, which left more time for quilt making. Secondly, they could use their sewing machines to make all or part of their quilts. The sewing machine was usually used to piece quilts, but occasionally the quilting itself was done with the sewing machine.
Civil War era
Oak Leaf Variant applique quilt, c. 1860, cottons, made by Mrs. M.E. Poyner, Paducah, Kentucky, dimensions: 74" x 86". Included in "Kentucky Quilts, 1800-1900" and "Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts & Context in the Civil War" traveling exhibitions and catalogues. Collection of Bill Volckening, Portland, Oregon.
Leading up to the American Civil War, quilts were made to raise funds to support the abolitionist movement then during the war, quilts were made to raise funds for the war effort and to give warmth and comfort to soldiers. The patterns were much like those made mid-century but the purpose was different. Quilts connected to the abolitionist movement and the Civil War were made for a cause, many representing the relevant flag.
Abolition and the role of quilts
Even before 1830, abolitionists were working hard to end slavery. One way they did this was to hold grand fairs to raise both awareness and money for the abolitionist cause. Quilts were one of many craft pieces sold at these fairs. These quilts were usually fine quilts often with beautiful appliqué. Women sometimes put anti-slavery poems and sayings on the quilts they made for fairs as well as for friends and family. The goal was to show the terrible plight of the slaves.
Some abolitionists were active along the Underground Railroad and helped runaway slaves get to safety. There are is a popular myth that maintains that certain quilts were used as signals to help slaves in their flight to freedom. For example, a log cabin quilt might be hung on the line of a safe house. However, historians dispute the accuracy of these stories. In fact, the only reference for these underground railroad quilts is a single book (Hidden in Plain View by JACQUELINE L. TOBIN and RAYMOND G. DOBARD) written over 120 years after the war. Nevertheless, the myth caught fire and can be found in children's books, teacher's lesson plans, quilter's pattern books and seems loathe to die.
For the troops
Women on both sides were very active in raising money for the war effort and making quilts and other bed coverings for soldiers.
In the North, quilts were still made for fairs but now these fairs earned money to support needs that came about because of the war. In the South, "gunboat" quilts were made to pay for much-needed gunboats.
It wasn't long before it was obvious that soldiers on both sides would need blankets and quilts for warmth. In the North, women either made quilts or remade quilts from bed coverings. Since the cots were narrow, two bedspreads could be made into three quilts for soldiers. The United States Sanitary Commission was in charge of collecting distributing them.
In the South, quilt-making was more difficult because although cotton was grown in the south, it was manufactured into fabric in the north. Before long, fabric was almost impossible to obtain so women had to spin and weave before they could sew a bed covering together. Regardless of their construction, most of the quilts made for soldiers on either side were made with practical patterns and fabric. Due to heavy use, very few have survived to the 21st century.
Victorian era America
Quilt making continued to be a popular craft during the latter part of the 19th century. The English Victorian influence was slightly delayed in the United States because of the Civil War and its aftermath.
Amish quilts are appreciated for their bold graphic designs, distinctive colour combinations, and exceptional stitching. Quilting became a favoured activity of the Anabaptist sect after emigrating to the United States and Canada from Germany and Switzerland over 250 years ago. The earliest known Amish quilts, dating from 1849, are whole-cloth works in solid colours. Pattern-pieced bed coverings didn't appear until the 1870s. Particular patterns and fabrics are identified with specific Amish communities; for example, pre-1940s quilts from Lancaster County were almost always made of wool while those sewn in Ohio during the same period were commonly made of cotton.
Often these quilts provide the only decoration in a simply furnished home and they also were commonly used for company or to show wealth. Amish religion discourages individual expression but quiltmaking has allowed Amish women to express their creative natures without giving offence. The Amish communities have always encouraged activities that promote community and family closeness so quilting became a fundamental part of social life for the women of the community. Quilts are created for everyday use or to celebrate special occasions such as birthdays, weddings, raising funds for the church or community cause. Since the "English" (the name for non-Amish people) discovered Amish work in the late 1960s, quilting has become a source of income for many. Their quilts have become collectors' items all over the world.
Crazy quilting fad
In terms of quilts the latter years of the 19th century is best remembered for the "Crazy quilting" craze. Crazy quilts were made of abstract shapes sewn randomly together. Usually the quilt maker then used embroidery to embellish the quilt. Fancy stitches were sewn along the seams and often, embroidered motifs were added, including flowers, birds and sometimes a spider and web for good luck. Magazines encouraged making "crazies". These simple, organic quilts were seldom used as bed-coverings, instead they were made smaller and without batting to be used as decorative throws.
Traditional quilt survival
Because crazy quilting was so popular at the time, they tend to eclipse the fact that many traditional quilts were also made for bedding and commemoration. Utilitarian quilts were pieced and tied or simply quilted for everyday bed coverings while beautiful pieced and/or appliquéd quilts were created for special events like a wedding or when a beloved minister was transferred to a new location. These were more often elaborately quilted.
In the 1940s and 1950s many farm feeds were delivered in sacks. These sacks were printed with all sorts of designs. Feed sacks were used to make thousands of quilts.
“History of quilting.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 2 Sep 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_quilting#United_States