Quilting: just another insignificant instance of women’s work, or is it? Elaine Showalter, author of the essay “Piecing and Writing” from The Poetics of Gender, would disagree. To her, quilting is “the art form which best reflects the fragmentation of women’s time, the dailiness and repetitiveness of women’s work.” According to Showalter, quilting is not a trivial example of how women have spent their free time, but a true art form invented and employed by hardy women throughout the centuries who utilized all their wits to ensure their families’ survival.
Quilting has gone through several stages of transformation over time, but it found its niche as a largely North American art form. In the early days of the settlement of North America and later during the settlement of the West and Frontier lands, quilting took the form of repurposing, patching, combining, and salvaging old blankets, clothing, feed sacks, and any other fabric for the sole purpose of providing warmth. These quilts were not the precious heirlooms one thinks of today when one imagines a quilt. But eventually, as North America was settled, quilting was revolutionized, shifting from its status as a salvaging methodology and survival skill to a new place of prominence as an art form with a purpose.
In the Victorian Era, quilting experienced its heyday of popularity. Many quilt patterns were invented and distributed during this time including the Log Cabin, Pineapple, Churn Dash, and Flying Geese patterns; the “Quilting Bee” – a social and practical event that brought women together to quilt finished quilt tops to backings – was instituted in many communities; fabric became more readily available as manufacturing moved to the continent. The quilts made during this time were functional as well as artistic masterpieces. They were designed to be made quickly and efficiently, but the “best quilt” – the finest quilt one would make and own – sometimes took years to complete.
A popular quilt found later in the Victorian era was the “crazy quilt.” It was made by sewing randomly shaped fabric pieces together to form a quilt top and often included large amounts of embroidery. These quilts were designed as works of art rather than functional pieces.
During the World Wars and the Great Depression, quilting experienced another shift. WWI introduced the role of the quilt as a fundraising and awareness tool. The Great Depression rekindled the skill to “make do” of many women by forcing them to revert back to quilting out of necessity since money was so scarce. These hardy women saved scraps of fabric and skillfully and frugally engineered quilts out of these scraps to keep their family warm during those difficult years. WWII revisited the quilt as means of raising funds. The “signature quilt” became very popular at this time. People paid to have their names embroidered on the quilt blocks and then the quilts were raffled off to raise money for the Red Cross.
Since WWII, quilting has made several more transformations. At some times the art of quilting has been nearly forgotten, at others, interest has been revitalized, but it has never ceased to be an inspiring art form, an enduring specimen of women’s resourcefulness, skill, and artistic genius in both good times and bad.