Thursday, September 21, 2017

The stuff of legends, part 8: make-do quilts in America

Quilts in America did not originate as make-do objects.

Unpopular as the notion may seem, America's early quilts 
were objects of wealth, disposable income and free time, 
not signs of poverty. 

Its a stubborn myth, but someone's got to bust it. Quilts in America did not originate as make-do objects. They were not originally made out of necessity by the less fortunate. Many of them were not even made to keep the family warm at night. America's earliest bedcovers were primarily elegant objects, displayed by affluent European immigrant families as decorative furnishings in well-appointed homes. Unpopular as the notion may seem, America's early quilts were objects of wealth, disposable income and free time, not signs of poverty.

wholecloth quilt, c. 1790, New England

Make-do tendencies certainly existed, especially when colonists made their own materials out of available resources such as wool and flax. The frugal use of fabric also indicated the limited availability and steep expense of taxed, imported textiles. Mills were slow to open in the colonies but the industry would start to thrive by the 1840s. African slave labor turned cotton in to one of America's most important crops. Of course, there were many problems, leading to the Civil War.

wool with various tones from different dye lots, c. 1810, New England
The American Civil War was fought over slavery, but it could also be called the war fought over cotton. Tobacco was another cash crop but it was a luxury. Cotton was much more of a necessity, and while black slaves labored, white slaveowners prospered. That was the ugly reality about the burgeoning textile industry in the United States.

quiltmakers would make do if they ran out of fabric, but they tried to hide it

A few years ago, quilt historian Suzanne Swenson presented a lecture in Paducah at the AQS annual show. It was called“What Happened to Cotton and Quilting During the Civil War?” and the lecture gave historical perspective of the effects of the Civil War on the cotton industry, quilting, and people's lives. According to Swenson, the Civil War was not just a soldier’s war in the field, it was also a war of struggle and survival for the women on the home front suffering the material shortages of everyday life. 

The struggle was especially real for Southern women of the Confederate States. Swenson talked about what happened to all the American cotton, how much cotton made it through the southern blockades, where the North was getting its cotton to keep the mills running, and whether more quilts survived in the North or in the South. It was fascinating! (if I can ever find a link, I will share it)

a Southern, Civil War period quilt, elegant and warm

Even in the harsh political climate before and after the Civil War, Southern quilts were elegant objects. Improvisational style would eventually be seen in Southern quilts, but it arrived a little later with used clothing and scraps from the garment industry, more toward the turn of the century and later.

In a certain regard, make-do quilts, which could also be called scrap quilts or improvisational quilts, first emerged in the form of elegant Victorian crazy quilts; made from bags of sumptuous scraps purchased by refined ladies, who painstakingly pieced them together randomly, embellished them with fancy stitches learned at the finest finishing schools, and draped over the settees in the front parlors of their large Victorian houses. Make-do quilts in America, the stuff of legends.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. A little imagination can go a long way toward feeding mythology about quilts.