Thursday, September 22, 2016

Handmade History: Quilting

by Kate McCreight, guest blogger

Continuing my obsession with all things sewing, quilting seems like a natural follow-up from my last Handmade History post about fabric. The practice of quilting fabrics for warmth in clothing and bed coverings dates back thousands of years and is practiced the world over. However, for our purposes, I'll just be looking at history of American quilting, and specifically quilts that were made and used in Minnesota.

Blazing sun pattern (sunburst variation), detail of patchwork quilt, c. 1850, Winona, MN. From the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, 65.194.4
Basically, a quilt is three layers: a quilt top, middle layer of batting, and a quilt bottom. There are three basic types of quilting styles, with numerous variations and combinations of the styles. Whole  cloth quilts are made from whole pieces of fabric (not pieced), with intricate patterns of stitching holding the layers together. A patchwork quilt is just as it sounds, with geometric pieces of fabric cut and sewn together into a variety of patterns, both simple and elaborate. Applique quilts are sometimes described as "best" or "show" quilts. Fabric appliqués are applied to the whole cloth, sometimes using elaborate stitching.
Wool felt appliqué pattern, River Bird

Quilts were (and are) made for a variety of uses, the most primary reason for the early settlers and pioneers were as objects for keeping warm. For early westward traveling settlers, quilts made in newly settled parts of the United States were largely utilitarian, made from usable scraps of older blankets and clothing. The quilts were typically patchwork in nature.

Quilting was not always a solitary affair, and quilting bees provided not only a chance to work on a large and sometimes complex design together, but also a chance for women to socialize. Quilting bees typically took place during daylight hours, and were often outdoors to get the best possible lighting for making small decorative stitches.
Women quilting together, 1895. From the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, negative #46770.

By the 1840s, as technology and transportation of goods advanced, fabrics became more widely available, and decorative quilting grew in popularity. Victorian ladies were schooled in various needlework arts, including quilting, and the richness of the pieces they created were evidence of a skilled lady of leisure. Alongside other forms of needlework, quilts were placed into competitions at state and county fairs.
Crazy quilt; velvet, taffeta, and satin; c. 1885; made by Anna Teachout and Orena Teachout, dressmakers, and possibly Cordelia Teachout, in Owatonna, Farmington, and St Paul, MN. This quilt won a ribbon at the 1885 Minnesota State Fair. From the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, 7410.1

Quilts were made not only for their basic purpose of a warm bed covering, but also as the intention of being family heirlooms and commemorating events.
Commemorative Quilt, Spirit of St. Louis, c 1927-1939. This quilt was made in the colors of the French flag to commemorate Charles Lindbergh's1927 solo Atlantic flight. From the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, 2010.21.1

Quilt kits becomes available at the turn of the 20th century. All the fabric arrived cut, with stitching marks in place to guide the quilting and placement of appliqués.
Pineapple design quilt kit, c 1930-1936, Morningside, MN. Pre-cut pattern pieces, binding, and instructions. From the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, 1999.60.1
The resulting kit quilts were derided by critics as making quilt making "as far removed from art as paint by numberings," and these same critics woefully lamented the "hurrying age" that made such "inferior" quilting popular. This was especially true if the kit quilt was placed in a competition alongside a scratch made quilt. (Interestingly, there seemed to be no distinction made by critics between quilts created by hand or on sewing machines.) However, quilting kits were very popular, and provided novice quilters the guidance to create more elaborate appliqués and stitch patterns. Early kit quilts can often be identified by the pattern markings still visible on the fabric, as early kits were not marked with water soluble materials.

Applique kit quilt, c 1920. Author's collection.
Detail of above appliqué kit quilt. The small blue dots mark the quilting lines. Author's collection.

As America fell deeper into the Great Depression, quilting was a practical way to use scraps to make a greater, useful whole. Fabric remnants from clothing, flour sacks, and chicken feed bags were incorporated into patchwork quilt blocks.

By the 1950s, interest in quilting died down. In an age of growth and prosperity, quilting was seen as a painful reminder of the leaner hard times of the Great Depression and sacrifices of World War II. Fortunately, quilting experienced a revival in the 1970s, alongside an increasing interest in handcraft in general.
Many colors crown quilt, Hartford Avenue Quilts

Quilts of the 21st century are not far removed from their 19th century siblings: both beautiful and utilitarian, created by hand or machine, unique expressions of the artist who created them.
Rainbow stripes quilt, Aimee's Homestead

For further reading:
International Quilt Study Center and Museum
Minnesota Historical Society
Textile Center


Cindy said...

As a textile designer, but not a quilter, I enjoyed your history of quilting very much. The research you undertook and the reference you supplied were enlightening.

Sharon Parker said...

This was very interesting! I enjoyed all the historic photos from Minn. Historical Society, as well as the local quilters today with Etsy shops. Very nice!

Kate (KnitsInClass) said...

Thanks, Cindy and Sharon!