The Quilting Tradition in America, Now on Your Checks

Think of the world quilting and your mind will draw up a number of stylized and romantic images of women in early America sitting around a quilting bee, or at least contemporary women sitting around their own quilting frame either using hand quilting or sewing machines to relax and complete their quilting projects. However the fact is that quilting is a relaxing modern day hobby that all can enjoy, women and men alike; the most notable example of the latter being quilt collector Jonathan Holstein who sparked American interest in quilting again with his 1971 art exhibition “Abstract Design in American Quilts.” Holstein’s exhibit redefined quilting as art, and paved the way for what is commonly called “quilt art” raising the practice to a whole new level of aesthetic appreciation and putting it within the reach of men, women and children everywhere.

Before quilting appeared in contemporary history, it had actually been used for other purposes besides creating luxury items or developing those materials we might normally associate with quilting. In fact, the tightly knit quality of quilting made it uniquely applicable to soldiers’ armor in medieval times. A well known quilted art piece appears in a British museum depicting the legend of Tristan.

Quilting was indeed used in early America, but as with many ideas about America there are many myths and misconceptions which abound about quilting among the pioneer women. Its prevalence was not as common a practice as we might be inclined to think, primarily because of the costs of the materials. Quilting utilized silks and cottons in the days of early America, and that put the work within the reach of the wealthiest alone. As time went on by the mid 19th century industrialization made cotton available on a more mass market commercial basis, and its affordability lent itself to more women regardless of their class or social status in society. Nonetheless, this increased availability of the essential quilting material did not immediately generate a quilting hobby craze. While costs were reduced, time was still expensive. Most women focused their creative energies on clothing their own families rather than expending any available free spare time to quilt for luxury items.

Other misconceptions need to be dispelled as well. For example, the traditional “quilting bee” scenario with women gathered together to quilt was in fact a rare occurrence and when it did take place, was less a collaborative effort than is commonly thought. Women gathered together in the bee would bring their own pieces to work on, using any available material to develop the quilt. Quilts were very rarely sewn by firelight, despite the romanticized images that exist in contemporary paintings which promote this idea. Rather women used available light in the long summer evenings to get most of their work done.

Over time quilting however benefited from industrialization. The invention of the sewing machine made quilting easier and more popular. Further, it helped to diminish and even eliminate some of the problems associated with traditional hand sewn quilts. Seams and stitches did not appear in the quilts made by these sewing machines, whereas these marks were quite obvious in hand sewn quilts. Thus, it was clearly easy to delineate the hand sewn quilts from those produced by sewing machines, and as only the wealthy owned the sewing machines, the invention itself ultimately served as a status symbol.

In some circles today quilting continues to be associated with affluence. For example, it’s not uncommon to find investors bidding on antique quilts at auction sites for some outrageous prices. Some examples of quilts which have been sold for high prices include the Jacob’s Ladder quilt, a two-color calico pattern quilt which has fetched hundreds of dollars. Other quilts include the Wedding Ring, which include a patchwork style wedding ring look, the Bear’s Paw quilt with it blue and red paw like pattern, and the Irish Chain, which uses a nine patch pattern of white and blue blocks.

Quilting has come a long way since its ancient use as body armor to its more common usage as both a pastime for pioneer women and ultimately a piece of artwork to be admired in its own way. Quilting is a hobby to be enjoyed by everyone, male and female, young and old alike, with technology and the prevalence of lower costs material making it all possible.

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