When I got married, my grandmother gave me a quilt. Its pattern is simple, but each square contains great meaning. She created this gift using fabric collected from earlier in my life, including pieces of my first sundresses and scraps of my prom dress (both sewn by my mother). The quilt is a story of my growing up.
The history of quilting in this country is itself quite a story. For more than 200 years, women have been sewing quilts as functional household objects, as means of expression, as historical documentation and as ways to create community. Robert Shaw, in his informative and visually spectacular book, “American Quilts: The Democratic Art, 1780-2007,” describes quilts as “emblems of hope, infused with a host of meanings – some broad, national and patriotic; others subtle, familial, and personal. Quilts are banners of self-realization and individual creativity, and the best quilts are significant works of visual art – objects of great beauty and expressive power.”
While we often imagine the first quilts being created by thrifty and clever colonialists, fashioning odd scraps into blankets, the truth is that the first American quilts belonged to the very wealthy – fabric had to be imported from England, and all but the very well-off needed what little fabric they had for their clothing. (And nobody but the rich had the number of free hours it took to actually sew a quilt by hand.) Elise Schebler Roberts, in “The Quilt: A History and Celebration of an American Art Form,” explains that it wasn’t until the 1840s that the textile industry was established enough in this country to make fabric widely affordable and quilting a common activity. But once it did become commonplace, what a rich variety of creation occurred!
Block quilts, strip quilts, applique quilts, Baltimore Album quilts, mourning quilts, crazy quilts, African-American quilts – read about them all in “The American Quilt: A History of Cloth and Comfort, 1750-1950” by Roderick Kiracofe. Kiracofe uses quilting as a lens through which to examine the cultural and social attitudes throughout our nation’s history.
Check out these books and more on the history of quilting, at the very least for the incredible images they contain. And through April 14, enjoy a quilt showing at the Columbia Public library, featuring 24 quilts from the mid-Missouri region, as well as programs related to the rich history of quilting.