Quilts: Woven Into Our History

June 18th, 2016 country quilts

Part of the Piper Classics Series on Country Quilts

Quilting has been around since the days of the Pharaohs.

Archeologists exploring Egypt once uncovered a 5,400-year-old figure wearing a quilted garment. But how did we get from the age of King Tut to the warm country quilt draped over your bed?

As people migrated, explored and conquered, they brought the art of quilting with them from place to place. One of those places was America. Quilting has been – forgive the pun – part of the fabric of our country since its earliest days.

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“The history of America can be seen in the history of quilts”

Quilts tell our story. They were made to prepare settlers for their journey into the west, to keep soldiers warm during the Civil War and even – according to oral tradition—send messages to escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad.

“Through the years, quilts have become documents of history,” says the National Park Service in its look at quilting in the pioneer era as part of its celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Homestead Act.

“They are the products of their society, influenced by the culture, and the environment of the people who made them. The history of America can be seen in the history of quilts. Stitched into these quilts is the rich heritage of thrifty self-sufficient women who helped homestead the land, the history of families sewn into quilts one patch or one stitch at a time, and the legacy of the art of quilting, passed on from generation to generation.”

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The truth about quilting bees

Visit pretty much any town and you’ll find a quilting guild, a place where quilters can come together, practice their craft and socialize.

These guilds are the descendants of the quilting bee, a practice that has its roots in Colonial America.

As the International Quilt Study Center & Museum writes on its website, the concept of Quilting Bees “has reached mythic proportions as a symbol for the cooperative nature of early colonial work.”

Women in the late 18th century shared the work of quilt making. Quilting parties were common, similar to other work cooperatives like harvesting and barn raising events. These early quilt parties were about cooperative work first, and socialization among women was a valued by-product. In the early part of the 20th century, writers like Eliza Calvert Hall romanticized quilting bees, as an opportunity for women to socialize and for young men and women to meet “in acceptable social settings.”

Quilts do important work

At various times throughout their history, quilts have served a noble purpose.

During the Civil War, women on the home front made some 250,000 quilts for Union soldiers. These were fairly modest quilts, with simple patterns and made from whatever fabric was on hand. When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, the government urged the public to make quilts instead of using blankets, as the wool used for blankets was reserved for the war effort.

iStock_1208169_SMALL.jpgThen there are stories of the Underground Railroad quilts, used to pass coded messages to help slaves escape the American south before and during the Civil War.

Typically, most slaves were forbidden from learning to read, which is why codes were so important: words, phrases and – in the case of the quilts – symbols were vital to pass along information. Quilts hanging out to air were a normal part of plantation life, allowing the messages to pass while avoiding notice from plantation owners.

Different patterns would mean different things. An X-like crossroads symbol, for example, signified Cleveland, which was the main crossroad for the Underground Railroad. We should note that everything we know about quilt codes comes from oral histories, and that historians say there is no written record of whether the codes ever existed.

More recently, we’ve used quilts to record loss. Begun in 1987, the 48,000 panel AIDS Memorial Quilt is the largest piece of folk art ever created. The project has inspired others to fashion similar quilts, remembering the victims of breast cancer, the Sept. 11 attacks and the Iraq War.

Is the quilt you own meaningful in some way? Maybe it kept you warm during a winter power outage. Perhaps it has been passed down through many generations. Maybe you learned to sew it from your grandmother. Maybe you just enjoy the pattern, colors, and the essence of American history it imparts to your home.

And if you’re not a quilt owner it’s never too late to become one. Visit Piper Classics and find something that can become part of your family’s story.