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Quilting History: Practical Art

Updated: Jan 25, 2021

Cold January days are great for curling up under a warm quilt. We are sharing a brief look at the history of quilting in North Carolina and some of the quilts from the museum’s collection here in our blog below and on social media throughout the month. Many quilts are beautiful works of art. These quilts also tell us more about the people who made them, mostly women. Women made quilts alone and in groups, for home use and community fundraisers, for everyday use and in honor of special occasions. There are almost infinite patterns and designs, but some of them tell us when a quilt was made or fit into a popular trend of the era. We have well over 100 quilts in our collection alone, made mostly by local women, some well over a hundred years old.

So, what is quilting exactly? At the most basic level it involves sewing together at least three layers of fabric – a top, some interior batting or cushion of some sort, and a backing. Beyond that there are so many different ways to go about quilts from sewing large pieces of fabric together with batting in between to patchwork quilts made up of many squares of fabric sewn together.

While quilting has an ancient, global history, we will start with early American quilting. In colonial times, it was difficult to procure the cloth needed for quilting. The process for weaving your own cloth at home was long and very time-consuming. This meant that only women who had plenty of leisure time or could afford to import cloth could produce quilts at home. Quilting in the colonial and early Republic eras was relegated to the affluent women of the merchant or planter classes, women who often had access to enslaved people as labor or could hire servants to assist with household chores. Quilting was a leisure activity for these women or something done for them. Many quilts belonging to rich families were often assumed to be made by the woman of the house when evidence and studies since have determined they were actually made by enslaved women.

Advancements in technology in the early 1800s made cloth easier to come by. Commercial-made cloth, especially cotton, became more prevalent and thus cheaper to purchase. The rise of railroads likewise led to increased access to cloth material. By the middle of the 19th century (1800s) quilting was practiced widely by women across the country.

A quilt is draped over the porch railing in this 1938 image. Photo from the Library of Congress.

While some quilts were purely for warmth and were used until they broke down, and then scraps of it were used again for a new quilt, many quilts became valuable family items. Quilts were sometimes hidden with other valuables during the Civil War. Other quilts were passed down through generations. Photography’s rise in the mid-1800s saw many families choose a quilt as the backdrop or as a featured prop. Death photography, common during the Victorian era, often pictured the deceased covered in a family quilt. Quilts were both ubiquitous and treasured.

In North Carolina after the Civil War manufacturing and mill work increased and by 1880, the beginning of the time period that the Tobacco Farm Life Museum focuses on, even women of lower- and middle-class farm families commonly made quilts. While average women quilted more and more, affluent women continued a focus on more decorative, less utilitarian quilts, like applique quilts which required whole large pieces of fabric or thin quilts made from more expensive fabrics that offered little warmth.

The 1880s saw the explosion of a new quilting craze, the “Crazy Quilt.” While sometimes made only by women who had more leisure time, many women participated in this trend. These “crazy quilts” were made using lots of small, irregular shaped pieces of fabric, often made from satin or silk, and with elaborate stitching and embroidery, thus making them more time-consuming.

This crazy quilt in the museum’s collection shows the elaborate stitching common to the quilt type as well as extra embroidered designs, irregular shaped pieces of material and a variety of types of materials.

Harder times in the state’s history, such as World War I and the Great Depression saw continued quilting; however, many women turned to recycled material such as wool suiting samples, sewing scraps, and tobacco, sugar, flour, and feed sacks. Quilting for these women served a practical need and quilts were cheaper to make than to buy commercial bedding; however, quilts still showed artistic design. During the Great Depression quilting also served as a source of entertainment and socializing when other entertainment options were too expensive.

Old quilts and sacks are used to keep tobacco moist and "in order" while waiting for auction sale in warehouse. Durham, North Carolina, November 1939. Photo from the Library of Congress.

North Carolina farm women, like other women across the country, contributed to an explosion of quilting in the 19th century, adding to the wide array of designs, patterns, and quilt types. Remaining quilts represent a legacy of women’s art. The 20th century saw the artistic quality of quilts recognized and quilting revivals have happened several times in the 1900s, seeing a renewed investment of time and energy into the folk art.

Below are a few types of quilts that are represented in the Tobacco Farm Life Museum’s collection.

Crazy Quilts

The Crazy Quilt was named perhaps for the “craze” that it caused, but most likely for its “artistic abandon.” Around the nation’s centennial (1876) there was renewed interest in the needlecraft traditions of early settlers such as embroidery. This interest may have inspired the ornamental stitches usually used in crazy quilts.

However, the crazy quilt’s exact origins are unknown. Some have argued that crazy quilts represented a “quiet revolution” for women. Social customs of the time were rigid and women had limited political or economic rights. Their days were structured by strict codes of behavior. Women could exercise control over domestic arts though.

Crazy quilts were made of a variety of irregularly-sized patches of different shapes and colors with multiple kinds of fabric together in one quilt, usually with no theme and no clearly planned design. The crazy quilt was the first abrupt departure from traditional designs and the first one to sweep the country.

This crazy quilt in the museum’s collection was made by Ida Butts around 1915. It has the word “Momma” embroidered on it in several places.

Patchwork Quilts

The quilt on the right was made around 1875 and may have been made by multiple quilters. It uses some sackcloth as the backing. Some of the fabric was home-dyed.

The majority of quilts made in the time period between 1880 and 1950 were made for practical purposes. Patchwork was more common for utilitarian quilts as it could be made using whatever cloth was available. Quilts were regularly made from cotton material, which was durable and warm. Most quilts featured simple stitching and many were made from reusable materials like sackcloth. Designs varied widely.

Using Quilting for Marketing

Tobacco companies gave away collectible swatches as a form of marketing. American Tobacco Co. offered ‘flags of the world’ swatches. The above pictured quilt in the museum's collection was made by a woman from Flags of the World swatches as well as a few other promotional swatches.

Communal Quilts

This quilt in our collection bears the names of the members of the St. Mary's Junior EH Club.

Quilts were made by individual women as well as groups of them. Neighbors, communities, friends, churches, and other organizations would join together to make quilts, sometimes for fundraising purposes. The names of those who worked on quilts or the names of the quilt recipient were often embroidered onto quilts.

Yo-Yo Quilts

This yo-yo quilt is in the collection of the Tobacco Farm Life Museum.

Yo-Yo Quilts were most popular from the 1920s through the 1940s. Tiny circles of fabric were gathered up at the edges and sewed together to create a three-dimensional effect. Yo-yo quilts were popular for a number of reasons. Women could carry the little circles of fabric with them and make yo-yos whenever they had a free moment. Also, during the Great Depression, because they were made from small scraps of fabric, yo-yo quilts were more affordable to make and whatever fabric was on hand could be used.

More Resources for Quilting History

The Quilt Index, an online database of quilts

Ellen Eanes, et. al, North Carolina Quilts (North Carolina Quilt Project, 1988).

Janet Finley, Quilts in Everyday Life, 1855-1955 (Schiffer Publishing, 2012).

Gladys-Marie Fry, Stitched from the Soul: Slave Quilts from the Antebellum South (University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

Cuesta Benberry, Always There: The African-American Presence in American Quilts (The Kentucky Quilt Project, 1992).

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