Library of Congress > Collections > Quilts and Quiltmaking in America, 1978-1996

Speaking of Quilts: Voices from the Late 20th Century

by Laurel Horton, July 1999

We Americans have adopted quilts as a symbol of what we value about ourselves and our national history. We speak of quilts as evidence of ingenuity and resourcefulness, and the patchwork quilt has replaced the melting pot as the metaphor for the cultural diversity of our population. However, just as our national motto, E pluribus unum, "One, from many," encompasses the collective history of individuals from many backgrounds, American quilts have many stories to tell.

Two collections of quilt-related materials come together in this online collection. One is a series of photographs of quilts and interviews with quiltmakers that were collected in 1978 as part of a survey of folklife traditions in the areas of North Carolina and Virginia adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway. This collection includes the voices of local women in response to questions about their lives as well as their quilts.

The second collection includes photographs of prize-winning quilts from national contests sponsored during the 1990s by the Coming Home Division of the Lands' End company and Good Housekeeping magazine. In accordance with the contest theme, "If Quilts Could Talk," contestants were invited to submit essays along with their quilts, and winners later supplied additional information about themselves and their quilts.

Together, the two collections provide opportunities to examine particular quilts within the larger individual and cultural contexts in which they were created and used. The Blue Ridge interviews were conducted in a limited geographic area over a period of two months with a small number of women identified by the researchers as traditional quiltmakers--that is, those for whom quiltmaking was an integral part of their lives in a rural economy. Their stories include learning to make quilts from older relatives, using remnants from home sewing, and recreating patterns passed down from earlier generations. These interviews, recorded in 1978, document an important transition in quiltmaking history: the early influences of its late-twentieth-century revival. At the time of the Blue Ridge interviews, quiltmaking was practiced primarily as an individual or local activity by older women, and there were as yet few indications of growing general popularity.

By the 1990s quiltmakers were well aware of their participation in a national movement. Young women and some men, many from urban and professional backgrounds, took up quilting as a leisure activity. Books and magazines provided a wealth of new patterns and techniques, manufacturers designed fabrics especially for quilters, and the Lands' End contest was only one of many opportunities for individual quiltmakers to participate in national exhibitions and events.

Quilt: Log Cabin quilt | Mamie Bryan's Comments Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection.

Quilt: 1992 Wisconsin State Winner; It's a Beautiful Day in My Neighborhood | Patricia Kailhofer's Comments, Lands' End All-American Quilt Contest Collection

It would be tempting to look at these two collections as a contrast between the last remaining examples of an old, traditional style of quiltmaking and the contemporary style of the revival movement. However, the narratives of the quiltmakers suggest that in many ways the experiences of the two groups of quiltmakers have been remarkably similar. It is the similarities, rather than the differences, that truly define the enduring appeal both of the quilts and of the quiltmaking process.

Traditional quilts exist largely in a private sphere, inside the home, within families. The Blue Ridge quiltmakers generally did not participate in public activities. However, there have always been exceptions. Some of the traditional quilters entered their work at local fairs, and others exhibited their work for sale at local craft shops. Carrie Severt came to the attention of the research team because she aired her quilts on her porch; and Lura Stanley, proud of how pretty her quilts looked hung outside to be photographed, imagined displaying them on a clothesline for sale at prices "out of reason."

By entering a contest, the Lands' End contest participants signaled their willingness to share their quilts with a public audience. The accompanying narratives indicate that some of the quilts were actually made specifically to be entered in contests. Other quilts were made as gifts for family or otherwise intended for private use. The majority of both groups of quiltmakers expressed similar interests in making quilts for loved ones and for personal satisfaction.

The Blue Ridge quilters who were interviewed had all grown up in the early twentieth century and had survived the Great Depression of the 1930s. They remembered an era in which making quilts from available fabric was a necessary survival tactic. Those who were still actively making quilts at the time of the interview no longer needed the quilts for warmth, but they continued the activity because they enjoyed the process.

The winners of the Lands' End contests ranged from young mothers to women in their eighties. Many of the older women recalled growing up in the Depression, making quilts out of necessity, and learning to quilt from family and friends. Although younger quilters have never needed to make quilts to keep warm, many of them expressed a form of solidarity with earlier generations of quilters by striving to make a quilt from materials on hand rather than from newly-purchased fabrics.

The fabrics, and the ways they are put together, represent the most obvious differences between the Blue Ridge quilts and the contest winners. Just as with clothing, there are changing fashions in fabrics, and one of the best ways to determine when a particular quilt was made is to identify the period in which its fabrics were manufactured. The quilts made by the Blue Ridge quiltmakers reflect the limited selection of woven cotton fabrics and the popularity of synthetics available during the 1970s, while the Lands' End contest quilts exhibit the range and variety of commercial goods available at the end of the century. Interestingly, however, some Blue Ridge quilters expanded their palette by using commercial dyes to color plain fabric, especially for linings; and a number of their later counterparts reported dyeing their own fabrics to obtain colors and textures not otherwise available.

Star quilt. Blue Ridge Parkway. Folklife Project Collection.

1994 Alabama State Winner; Seize the Day. Lands' End All-American. Quilt Contest Collection.

Perhaps the most striking differences between the two groups of quilts are in the ways the fabrics have been combined to form designs. The Blue Ridge quilts are either pieced without patterns, using strips and rectangles, or are constructed according to traditional pieced and applique patterns, most of which date back to quilt revivals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Lands' End contest winners reflect a broad spectrum of design styles and construction techniques developed and popularized during the late twentieth century. Non-symmetrical designs, detailed pictorial images, and the use of computer-generated or photo-transfer images co-exist with new interpretations of traditional design elements. At the same time, however, the winning quilts include a large percentage of traditional patterns, and many of the quiltmakers reported selecting patterns and fabrics in order to make quilts that resembled those of earlier generations.

Although the two groups of quilts display visible differences in their materials and techniques, they result from a common process of design and implementation. Each quiltmaker, whether working with limited materials and influences or having access to abundant resources, experiences the same sequence of steps in creating a quilt.

At the beginning of the process of making a quilt, there is a moment of inception. Although the maker may have been thinking generally about making quilts for some time, there is always an instant in which it becomes clear that she will make this particular quilt. For some, the moment may result from outside event, such as the desire to make a wedding, birthday, or anniversary gift. For others, the inspiration might be the recognition of a need to recreate in fabric the emotional impact of a momentary connection with the beauty of the natural world. Sometimes the impetus might be the desire to use a particular piece of fabric or to explore an unusual color combination. Frequently, too, quiltmakers are inspired by existing quilts from the family closet, in a museum display, or a picture in a book.

Once the decision has been made, there may be a period of incubation, in which the original idea is refined, materials collected, and preparations made. When the time is right, the quiltmaker enters the implementation phase, applying tools to fabric. Historically, this often meant creating a template from paper or cardboard, tracing the shape onto fabric, and cutting the fabric with scissors. Contemporary quiltmakers have a number of additional tools and techniques, including rotary cutters, freezer paper, and glue-sticks. During the process of cutting and sewing, the quiltmaker may realize the need to modify or adapt the design. There is a give-and-take between the maker and the emerging quilt, and for many quiltmakers, this is the part of the process that provides the highest satisfaction.

At some point during construction, the quilt develops a life of its own. Not only does it have a physical weight, or "body," but the quiltmaker may feel that it expresses its own "personality" as well. As the quilter's abstract idea materializes into a quilt, the quilter may feel a sense of separation or detachment even wonder that she has created a physical and emotional presence where nothing existed before. It is no surprise that quilters often use metaphors of giving birth when speaking of their quilts.

The quiltmaking process is not complete with the finishing stitches, however, for the quilt must fulfill its purpose. Whether the quilt is intended to cover a bed, decorate a wall, serve as a gift, compete in a contest, or rest in a closet as evidence of personal achievement, the movement away from its maker is enacted both physically and emotionally each time a new quilt's purpose is achieved.

The quilts made in the Blue Ridge mountains and photographed in 1978 may on the surface appear quite different from those selected as winners of contests during the 1990s. The stories that describe the materials, patterns, and techniques employed may at first sound worlds apart. However, the quiltmakers themselves, if they could engage in conversation, would recognize that in quilts, they share a common language.

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