Patches From the Past
Scraps of Fabric, Sewing & Quilting History

The Myth of Colonial Quilting (1620 - 1780)

~ did ordinary women in early America sit by the fire and quilt? ~

Imagine your days as an ordinary mother and wife in Colonial America.

— You are fortunate that your eleven-year-old daughter is old enough to help with the spinning and are looking forward to when your seven-year-old daughter will be old enough to learn to spin as well.

Spinning, knitting and making clothes for your family of seven are only part of your responsibilities. With some help from your two daughters you must also preserve food, make candles and soap as well as keep house and prepare meals for everyone. Your eldest two sons are ten and twelve now and a great help to your husband in the fields but the youngest is just 18 months and if it weren't for the attention your youngest daughter gives him you would be constantly interrupted in your chores. Daughters are indeed a blessing.

find  this book at amazon.com Making a quilt would be far from your mind. Such frivolities would be for the wealthy who had servants to do their chores. You may have heard of the lovely bed coverings these women made by appliquéing imported chintz prints or the beautiful quilting done on wholecloth to cover the beds in fine mansions. But such a creative endeavor would seem so far from your life you would not have even imagined making such a quilt yourself.


Putting our selves in the shoes of such a woman helps us realize that the idea of a Colonial woman sitting in her cabin quilting before the fireplace is surely a myth. There were, of course, some exceptions. Some women may not have been able to quilt on an everyday basis but managed to occasionally make a fine quilt as described above for a special occasion like a wedding. Medallion quilts were also made during this period but most were made by those who could afford the time and fabric needed to make one

By about 1840 the textile industry had grown to the point that fabric was readily available to most families. Only then did quilting become an occupation of the everyday woman. Interestingly it was after quilting became a widespread activity that somehow the idea of quilting being common in Colonial times became a romanticized notion. The notion of women quilting from the time the Pilgrims arrived in America is not at all new.

This notion was reinforced in the 1920s and 30s when there was a revival of interest in everything Colonial including furniture design and an idealized vision of Colonial quilting. Manufacturers and magazines took advantage of this fad by promoting quilts that were actually made in the nineteenth-century before the Victorian Era. In the book "The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt" which was published in 1935 the author writes, "The quilt as we know it in America, was in the beginning a strictly utilitarian article, born of the necessity of providing warm covers for beds and hanging for doors and windows that were not sufficiently fitted to keep out the cold of a new England winter, and were so intimately connected with the everyday life of the colonists that no record of them exists." * The myth of Colonial quilting was so ingrained by then that the author, Carrie A. Hall, didn't even consider the idea that perhaps quilting was not recorded simply because it was not done at the time. She was not alone; many writers over the years have assumed that quilting was common in Colonial times.

© 2002 Judy Anne Johnson Breneman (Do not reproduce this article without permission from the author)

References:

* P13, The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt, by Carrie A. Hall and Rose G. Kretsinger

Quiltmaking in America: Beyond the Myths, "The Production of Cloth, Clothing, and Quilts in Nineteenth-Century New England Homes"
by Lyn A. Bonfield

Soft Covers for Hard Times: Quiltmaking & the Great Depression, by Merikay Waldvogel

Websites:

Colonial Women ~ Quilters or Not? , More about early quilting and quilts.

Facts vs. Myths About America's Quilting Past , Discerning between fact and fiction in quilting history.

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