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Quilting in 19th Century America

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  • Pages: 9
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  • Category: America

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     Quilting has been around since ancient times. Essentially the piecing together of scraps of fabric and then adding stuffing and backing to create a bedspread, quilting is both utilitarian and decorative. However, until the early part of the 19th century, quilting was relatively rare in America. This was because the women of the new country had to spend most of their time spinning thread and weaving cloth from scratch in order to provide clothing for their families. This left little time for the luxury of making a decorative quilt; there were certainly no significant scraps of fabric left over (in most cases) for this purpose. Quilting, until that time, was the province of wealthy women who were not burdened with having to make their own cloth and so had the leisure time to use their sewing skills to make ornamental textiles.

     Beginning in the early 19th century, however, the industrial revolution came about and made mass production of ready-made cloth a fact of daily life. Cloth was woven in factories in large quantities.  By the mid-19th century, most American families could afford to buy cloth from the store, rather than make it themselves.  With this advance in technology, the American woman was able to devote her time to other things besides clothing her family.  It was around this time that the explosion in American quilting began.

     Early quilts were often made with fabric specifically bought for that quilt.  While it was certainly possible for quilts to be made in the traditional way, from scraps of fabric left over from other sewing projects, the industrial revolution brought about a significant increase in the types and varieties of fabrics that were available to the American public. This meant that there were some fabrics that were designed just for quilt making, and the American woman availed herself of these fabrics.

     The invention of the sewing machine also contributed to the rise in quilt making in the mid nineteenth century.  The sewing machine made sewing quicker and easier.  This meant that women could make clothes for their families in much less time than it used to take doing this task by hand; as a consequence, this left more time for more trivial pursuits such as quilt making (Weil, 105).  The sewing machine could also be used to increase the speed and ease of making the quilt.  Sewing machines were used most often to piece together the quilt, but were sometimes used to sew the entire project.  The Singer sewing machine company made purchasing and using a sewing machine easy for the typical American family of the time by creating an installment payment plan.  Households that wanted a sewing machine could take one home and make payments on it over time, much like modern day credit plans.  The installment plan was instituted in the 1850s, and by the 1870s, most American households had a sewing machine.

     There were several major types of quilts being produced in American households in the nineteenth century.  The most common type of quilt was the block quilt.  Block quilts were made of pieces of square fabric that were pieced together either in a pattern or randomly.  These pieces of fabric may or may not have had patterns on them and a border may or may not have been added to the quilt.  A large number of quilts from this time period are block quilts, as they were among the easiest of quilts to plan and sew.

     Whole cloth quilts were also frequently seen.  Whole cloth quilts were made of a solid piece of fabric to which batting (the stuffing of the quilt) and backing were added.  These quilts were usually either white or of solid colors; white quilts were often referred to as whitework.  Sometimes, these whole cloth quilts were decorated with fine embroidery and stitching which made them veritable works of art.  Additionally, a technique known as trapunto was sometimes used to bring out certain areas of the quilt by adding extra batting just to the areas the quilt maker wanted emphasized. Whole cloth quilts, though they were made with one piece of fabric rather than many, could be just as distinguished and intricate as other types of quilts.

     Broderie perse quilts were another type of quilt commonly seen in the nineteenth century.  In broderie perse quilts, cut-out patters and designs from printed fabrics were applied to a solid quilt background.  In fact, this type of quilt making was popular among wealthy women of leisure in the eighteenth century.  Chintz was the most common fabric used for this type of quilt making.  Printed fabric was expensive, so broderie perse quilt making was an excellent way for the frugal housewife to ensure that every bit of her fabric was being used in the best way possible.  Broderie perse quilts were most commonly used in guest bedrooms or were only brought out when guests were staying in the home (Kiracoke and Johnson, 19).

     Medallion quilts were also popular in the nineteenth century.  Medallion quilts were made around some sort of center focal point.  This focal point could be either a solid piece of fabric or a cut-out design from printed fabric.  This central focal point was surrounded by at least two borders, often more.   The borders could be solid or printed, and some were even cut-out pieces that were applied to the quilt fabric.

     Signature quilts were popular after 1840 and before the Civil War.  Signature quilts came about with the invention of indelible ink.  This ink made it possible for quilt makers to sign their quilts, as well as to add any other sort of writing to the quilt they desired, such as poetry and prose.  Friendship quilts were quilts made out of blocks of fabric that were all of the same pattern.  These quilts were usually made by many people, and each person making the quilt personally made at least one quilt block and signed it with indelible ink.  Even when only one person actually made the quilt, that person would often get others to sign the blocks.  Friendship quilts were a common gift given to those who were moving out to the frontier to homestead.  That person’s friends and family would create a friendship quilt that everyone would sign.  The person who was moving could then take that quilt with them as a reminder of all the people that they were leaving behind as they began their great journey.  Autograph quilts were essentially the same as friendship quilts, except that instead of the signatures being written directly on the quilt blocks, they were written on individual pieces of applied fabric.

     Quilting became an important social activity for American women on the frontier in the mid to late nineteenth century.  When these women left their homes and families and friends back east to travel with their husbands to the west, they were leaving behind a lot. Everything familiar to them was going away and they were heading to a land in which they most likely knew little to no one and in which the terrain was wholly unfamiliar.  Neighbors were few and far between.  These women were often quite lonely.  As small towns and settlements began to spring up along the frontier, the women of these places began to come together in friendship and out of a sometimes desperate need to have social interaction.  One of the most popular activities these women engaged in with each other was quilting.  Quilting circles were common.  In quilting circles, women came together at regularly scheduled times to work on quilts together.  These women may have worked on one quilt together or they may have brought their own individual projects to work on in the company of other women.  During these times, the women could enjoy each other’s company and conversation while doing something productive.  It was a great excuse to socialize and to justify it through the making of the quilt.  The quilting circle was also referred to as a quilting bee.  Sometimes these quilting gatherings were made into competitions, but more often than not, they were simply social circles of otherwise lonely women who came together to create any semblance of normalcy they could in their new and often confusing lives on the western frontier.

     Quilts were quite utilitarian for the pioneer woman traveling west.  Many books and guides were published in the mid to late nineteenth century regarding the best way to prepare for traveling out west.  One of the most frequently cited caveats was that one should bring enough bedding to last the entire family several years.  This often meant the need to create many new quilts for bedding purposes before the journey began.  Women would often use the need to make new quilts as an opportunity to visit with family and friends who would help them make the quilts.  This time spent with family and friends was precious, as the women were soon to be leaving these people behind.

     Once on the wagon trail, quilts were used in a variety of ways.  They were, of course, used as blankets on the trail and to wrap breakable items such as china (Bial, 82).  However, they could also be used folded up to sit on during uncomfortable long wagon rides and to hang up on the sides of wagons to draw the arrows of hostile natives that may be met along the way (Jones, 24).  Quilts could be used to cover openings on covered wagons, dug-outs, and newly built houses to keep out the dust and to wrap newborn babies.  In tragic cases, quilts could also be used to wrap the bodies of loved ones who died en route to the frontier and had to be buried along the trail; in these cases, wrapping the body in a quilt from home gave some comfort to the family, as they were leaving their departed loved one with something from the home and family they had left behind.

     Even back east, quilts had their important social functions.  Young women proudly displayed their handiwork in quilts to the young men who came to court them, as evidence of their skill and usefulness as a wife.  Such quilts often became part of the hope chests of young brides.  During the Civil War, when women did not have much opportunity to help the war cause, one way they did help was by making fine quilts to be sold at craft bazaars to raise money for local churches and other organizations that financially supported the war effort (Buller-Kaplanian, 39).  Quilt making allowed American women to take a greater part in the everyday commercial life of the country.

     Today, these antique quilts of the nineteenth century are great collectors items and highly prized.  Many of them have found their way into museums and even more are housed in private collections.  The skill and craftsmanship shown in these old quilts is still evident after all of these years.  The women who created these quilts were obviously proud of their work and that pride shows through in the fine stitching and designs of the quilts.  Many antique frontier quilts are real works of art.  As tangible symbols of a time gone by, it is easy to see why antique quilts are such sought-after collectors items.

     Quilting has had a long and interesting history in the United States.  From the purely decorative to having multiple practical uses for the average American family, the quilts of the nineteenth century were an intimate and important part of life for the American family of that time.  Quilts were perhaps more important to women than to anyone else.  By allowing women the opportunity to display their skills for prospective mates to giving them the opportunity to help out the war cause to allowing them a chance to socialize with other women on the lonely frontier, quilts played an important role for frontier women.  The culture of nineteenth century America is wrapped up in its frontier quilts.

Works Cited

Bial, Raymond. With Needle and Thread: A Book About Quilts.

     New York: Houghton Mifflin.  1996.

Buller-Kaplanian, Lynn. Passing on the Comfort: The War, the

     Quilts, and the Women Who Made a Difference.  New York:

     Good Books.  2005.

Jones, Lila Lee. Heartland Quilts: Rescued Treasures from

     The Midwest.  New York: Chitra Publications.  2002.

Kiracoke, Roderick and Johnson, Mary Elizabeth.  The

     American Quilt: A History of Cloth and Comfort–1750-

  1. 1850. New York: Clarkson Potter.

Weil, Zaro.  Quilts: A Beautiful History.  New York: MQ

     Publications.  2005.

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