When people think about quilts, they often picture women sitting together around a quilt frame, enjoying a communal experience. Quilts are frequently used, both literally and metaphorically, to express a sense of community. However, there is another common thread that runs throughout the history of American quilts -- that of competition.
During the nineteenth century, state and local agricultural fairs regularly included competitive categories for quilts and other needlework. There was a strong feeling that displaying and awarding prizes to the most beautifully designed and well-constructed quilts would encourage women to improve their skills. In the twentieth century, the wide circulation of women's magazines invited entries in national quilt competitions. The most notable of these was the Century of Progress Quilt Contest sponsored by Sears, Roebuck and Company as part of the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago. The first prize of $1,200 must have been a powerful incentive during the lean years of the Great Depression, as the contest attracted nearly twenty-five thousand entries from all over the country.
In 1992, the Coming Home Division of Lands' End Direct Merchants teamed up with Good Housekeeping magazine to sponsor an "All-American Quilt Contest." From the entries received, judges selected both a first prize winner from each state and a national winner. The contest was repeated in 1994 and 1996, under the theme "If Quilts Could Talk." The 1994 winners were invited to submit short essays about their quilts, and in 1996, all entrants were invited to do the same. Many quiltmakers took the opportunity to share the stories of their quilts, and while a collection of prize-winners may not represent the full range of American quilts, their stories, motivations, and meanings connect them with hundreds of thousands of other quilts that decorate beds, comfort children, document weddings and birthdays, and give pleasure to the makers and their loved ones.
The makers of the winning quilts from all three years of the contest were asked to submit additional information about their quilts to share with viewers of this online collection. It is clear from these responses and the original essays, that the process of making and sharing a quilt can achieve many purposes, reflect many and complex meanings and relationships, and warm and comfort the spirit as well as the body.
One might suppose that the winners of national quilt contests would all be experienced, even professional, quilt artists, and indeed, the state winners include a number of people who earn income from quilt-related enterprises. However, a surprising number of winners had been quilting only a short time when they entered the contest. Some had done other kinds of sewing and needlework, and they found quiltmaking a natural extension of their skills.
In an age of quilt classes, instruction books, and videos, one might assume that there are few opportunities for learning to make quilts "the old-fashioned way," from members of the family. Surprisingly, however, a number of winning quilters responded that they had indeed learned from mothers, grandmothers, or friends. Others learned from church groups making quilts for charity. The majority described themselves as "self-taught," and in a very real sense, this could describe every quilter. Whether one is watching a video, reading from a book, or listening to words of instruction, the learning process is similar: each quilter must consciously learn to perform the necessary motions and then practice until the actions become familiar.
There are ongoing debates among quilters about whether quilts should be considered "art" or "craft." A quilt, like any other individually made object, represents both aesthetic and technical considerations. Some quilts are intentionally created to serve as bedcovers, while others are designed to be hung on walls. To function well as a bedcover, a quilt must be made in an appropriate size, shape, and proportion; its weight and thickness should provide the necessary warmth; and it should not be embellished with sharp objects that might threaten injury. A quilt for a wall has different requirements. Its visual interest is paramount, and it must hang straight. Since walls come in all sizes, there is more variety in the size and shape of wall quilts. These categories are not entirely separate, of course, as many quilts can serve either function.
Even casual observers of quilts are aware that specific quilt patterns have names. "Wild Goose Chase," "Drunkard's Path," and "Log Cabin" are recognized by quilters and non-quilters alike, and these traditional patterns frequently inspire original variations. Many quiltmakers, however, bestow specific titles on their special quilts, whether the quilts use traditional patterns or represent original designs. These titles often reflect the maker's inspiration or indicate the quilt's intended purpose.
The quiltmakers of the late twentieth century have a bewildering abundance of fabrics from which to choose. Many purists insist upon 100 percent cotton material; others look for particular colors, textures, or patterns while ignoring the fiber content. Although quiltmakers of this era typically buy new fabric especially for their quilts, a number of state winners indicated that they had challenged themselves to use only those fabrics already in their collections. Experienced quiltmakers often admit to accumulating large fabric collections to provide an extensive "palette" from which to choose.
The 1994 and 1996 contest theme, "If Quilts Could Talk," inspired some entrants to make quilts specifically for the contest. Others realized that quilts they were already working on, or had recently finished, fit the theme. However, as a number of entrants pointed out, "every quilt has a story to tell," suggesting that the theme was not considered a limitation. The narratives about the winning quilts display a remarkable range of motivations and influences. Some depict very personal stories, such as recovery from illness or the loss of a loved one. Others make political statements about local, national, or international events and concerns. In particular, the 1992 contest attracted a large number of quilts made in response to the Persian Gulf War.
Quilts frequently celebrate birthdays, graduations, weddings, anniversaries, and retirements, and a number of the winning entries commemorate such events. These quilts include visual reminders of the intended recipients' lives and interests such as pictorial images, actual items of clothing, or symbols of personal significance. With some quilts, the story is easily "read" by the viewer. With others, the meaning may not be apparent without the accompanying narrative. Without knowing the story, all we see is a pretty quilt.
Nature, in its many manifestations, proves a frequent inspiration to quilters. Some express their connection to the natural world by choosing or adapting traditional floral quilt patterns, while others describe the attempt to "paint" with fabric. For some, nature is as near as the backyard or a favorite walking trail; others are moved to interpret a vista from a vacation or a childhood memory. Contest winners described the challenges of recreating in fabric the emotional qualities evoked by the beauty and power of natural landscapes.
Many quilters find that fabric is an effective medium through which to explore and express the spiritual dimensions of their lives. The process of creating a quilt is, for many, a rich and profound experience. Some quilters feel a deep sense of union with their own ancestors, with generations of past quiltmakers, or with the creation of the universe.
While quilters have many tools and techniques to choose from to facilitate the process, the truth is that making a quilt, particularly a prize-winning quilt, takes time and personal commitment. No matter what the impetus for making a particular quilt, nearly all of the contest winners reported that the challenge of designing, constructing, and completing their quilts rewarded them with a strong sense of achievement.
When the winners were asked their primary reason for entering the contest, many responded that friends and relatives had urged them to do so. Others saw this as an appropriate way to share a suitable quilt and its story. The state winners reported a wide range of experience in entering quilt competitions. A large number regularly enter -- and win prizes -- in national and regional contests. Some quilters indicated that they enter a few shows every year. Yet, a surprising number of the winners revealed that they had rarely or never entered a quilt contest before. For many of these, the contest theme and the urging of friends were important factors in their decision to enter this contest.
Quilters who regularly show their quilts through contests, shows, and magazines found that being a winner in this particular contest did not change their lives or the way they look at their work as quiltmakers. Others, however, reported that being a winner meant that their families, friends, and communities took their work more seriously and that being recognized as "experts" has boosted their self-esteem and allowed them to see themselves as artists. Another group responded that they continue to make quilts because they enjoy the process. The recognition is nice, they say, but less important than the feeling of personal satisfaction.
Although this group of prize-winning quilts does not represent a true cross-section of the work of American quiltmakers, the quiltmakers' responses indicate the wide range of experiences that influence how the quilts are envisioned and brought to reality. Each quilt is the result of a unique process of inspiration and construction, and each has a story to tell.
by Laurel Horton, July, 1999