An Unexpected History

Century Quilt Top

I have officially completed the top of the Century Quilt without harming myself or the sewing machine. It just goes to show what can be completed in the dead of winter when one is (a) retired with no responsibilities other than feeding the cat and (b) there are no little ones underfoot.

While I was ripping out far too many seams, swearing at my stupidity and the @#($%&  mess of tangled thread, bent needles and/or sewing machine, a chance remark by a dear friend regarding the cultural and historical context of quilting got me thinking in a non-sewing direction.

I knew nothing about the history of quilts so it was a very healthy diversion from throwing out everything and taking up solitaire as a hobby.

I also had noted a trend as I started seeking out quilting blogs and websites when I needed help or advice, which happened a whole lot. Most of the sites began with Insert your favorite profanity here before proceeding with troubleshooting remedies.

I found I had remembered words my dad had learned in WWII and had unintentionally used in front of us kids.

That made me wonder more about the culture surrounding quilting.  I also wondered about the politics of quilting, given that most of the women I know aren’t especially silent, especially on matters of importance, and their opinions surface in all kinds of formats.

A little investigation quickly showed that women were not terribly silent in the past and politics played a very major role in quilts.

Apparently, quilting was not all that common in early American history, or any history for that matter, except for the 1 Per Centers who could afford fabric.  For the average woman, material was far too expensive and time was better spent spinning, weaving and sewing clothes or mending blankets. It wasn’t until much later, when affordable fabrics were available that quilting became commonplace.

American quilting designs were grounded in religion and politics, God’s Eye (see below) as a reminder of both God’s protection and religious freedom, but so much about quilts and quilting has been romanticized over time. 

Quilting bees? ah, no.  Maybe a friend or two, but the romantic notion of women coming together, singing and sewing, is not much more than fiction unless religious or political groups brought women together for one cause or another. 

Given the tangles of thread, I suspect there was more muttering than singing.

There is an entire mythology that has grown around women’s quilts and is more wishful thinking than fact.  This includes the fiction surrounding quilts and the Underground Railroad ~ for example, Jacob’s Ladder Myth, with a black center for the chimney, symbolic of a safe house for run-away slaves on the trail to the North and freedom.  

That said, many Northern women did support the Abolitionist movement, renaming many of their quilt patterns in support of ending slavery. Job’s Tears became Slave Chain by 1825, far in advance of the Civil War.  Freed black women and white women alike formed Female Anti-Slavery Societies. Anti-Slavery Fairs sold donated quilts, clothing and decorative items to underwrite schools for black children, circulate anti-slavery petitions, etc.

These fairs also found their way into churches and other community causes before becoming the basis for raising money for both sides during the Civil War. Southern women made enough money with their Gunboat Quilts to purchase three ironclad gunboats.  Both sides turned their focus to helping soldiers by sewing comfort quilts for them.  It is estimated that the Union women donated over 250,000 quilts to soldiers while Confederate women, with sewing skills more aligned with embroidery and facing a scarcity of material, made quilts for the southern soldiers from any available material, including rugs.

Quilting made bold political statements in the Civil War era, with Log Cabin (a nod to Lincoln’s birthplace and Union support) a favorite among northern women as were Liberty Star and The Lincoln Platform.

Women silent? ah, no. Even without a vote, women were not silent.

Imagine crawling into bed with your sweetie under the Drunkard’s Path Quilt, a favorite of the Temperance Movement, or a Suffrage Quilt promoting the women’s right to vote.

With the 20th century, there was a whole new movement in the quilting world: AIDS, pro-war, anti-war, anti-violence against women…the list seems endless with both men and women finding a voice in their quilts.

Of course, at the top of the list, quilts are a still form of meditation for the quilter, assuming things are going right and ^$*@#&($&  thread is not tangling, as well as a source of protection and comfort for the recipient.

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6 thoughts on “An Unexpected History

  1. Indeed. It sounds like you’ve been a good student of our history. Too many believe that all women quilted and the majority of their fabrics were cast-offs from clothing production, or even cut up used clothes. Ah, no… 🙂

    And yes, the Underground Railroad “quilt code” sounds lovely and romantic, but has very little basis in fact. I’ve studied that subject extensively and written about it myself.

    Thanks for your post. The broader we can spread truth, the better.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lovely poem — I do remember that one!! Thank you!! I remember wrapping myself in my grandmother’s Great Depression scrap quilt, made from old shirts and dresses, and feeling protected against the world.


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