Category Archives: U.S. History

Resources for Quilt History

In the excitement of the modern era of quilting, we sometimes forget that people have been quilting since ancient times. The simplest definition of a quilt is two layers of fabric with padding between, and stitching through all three layers. Given this, there is some evidence of an Egyptian pharaoh wearing a quilt more than 5,000 years ago.

More recently and with stronger evidence, quilting seems to have arisen in Europe centuries ago. (Don’t be fooled, though! Cultures across the globe have long histories of quilting. It is NOT merely a European or American construct.) Quilted garments were used for warmth and for armor. Only later were quilts used to line walls as insulation, or used as bed coverings.

Most quilts with which we’re familiar are bed covers from the 1800s through present. Whole cloth, broderie perse, early medallions and block quilts, crazy quilts from the 1880s, we’ve all seen photos of antique textiles. The peripheries of quilting history include so much more. Slavery, industrialization, labor history, women’s rights, art; all are part of quilting’s story.

I love the history of our art, in all its beauty and shame. I’m inspired intellectually as I consider the constraints under which our predecessors worked. Visual inspiration comes at all turns, from the most technically perfect pieces to those created with a freer hand.

We’re so fortunate to be able to access much of that story. With online resources, books, and groups, we can learn more easily than ever. How and why did various quilting styles arise? What technological advances changed our methods? What was the impact from the social, economic, or political environment?

Here are a few resources you may find helpful in answering some of these questions. I invite you to suggest more links and other means to find out more.

Web Resources
There are so many museums and other institutions that have put collections online. If you have favorites, please share.

The Quilt Index — searchable database of tens of thousands of photos and quilt stories from all eras and collections around the world.

Material Culture — a broad look at fabric and quilt history by respected historian Barbara Brackman.

Women’s Work: Quilts — a new blog by Brackman looking at quilts within the context of economics and the business of quilting.

Civil War Quilts — Barbara Brackman’s blog chock full of information on both textiles and quilts from the 1800s. — a variety of articles on the history of quilting in America, with some connections to other cultures and countries, by Judy Anne Breneman — lots of articles, links and other resources from group-list members. It appears the group is closed or disbanded now, but some of the resources may be worth your look.

I’ll only list a few of my favorites here, but feel free to suggest more in comments.

American Quilts: The Democratic Art, 1780-2007  by Robert Shaw — one of my favorite texts, with large full-color photos on at least half of the 376 pages. Shaw acknowledges the origins of quilting prior to the American experience, but he delves deeply into quilting in this country. The roles of slavery, industrialization, economics, and politics are all discussed. It is gorgeous and clearly written. If I could only keep one book on quilt history, it would be this.

Making History: Quilts & Fabric From 1890-1970 by Barbara Brackman — Brackman’s book, one of many by her, reviews fabrics, dyes, and print patterns over an eighty-year period, along with popular quilt styles of the time. The text gives plenty of information and full-color photos to help anyone interested in the subject. As a bonus, there are patterns for nine projects inspired by different eras. I haven’t reviewed the project instructions so can’t tell you about writing quality or accuracy of the directions, but the quilts are appealing.

Dating Fabrics: A Color Guide 1800-1960 by Eileen Jahnke Trestain — this is in essence a swatch book, using photos rather than slips of fabric. Taking two or three decades at a time, Trestain groups fabrics by color, showing the evolution of colors and print styles over 160 years. She also discusses changes in dyes and manufacture, as well as quilt styles. For a small book, there is a lot of information packed in.

Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns by Barbara Brackman — my edition, published in 1993, is a comprehensive reference of quilt blocks, including pieced sashing and strip quilts. The blocks are presented as line drawings in black and white. Each is numbered for indexing, and identified by names and source. Many blocks have multiple names, and many names have multiple block styles. Each pattern category includes a key, grouping blocks by construction method for ease of finding. I don’t use this book a lot but I’m sure glad to have it.

There are museums that focus on quilting history, and other museums that exhibit primarily contemporary quilts. Still others have a broader range but may have continuing or special exhibits on quilts. Here are just a few.

International Quilt Study Center & Museum, Lincoln, NE — though the emphasis here is on quilt study and preservation, the museum is a premier site for exhibitions as well. They have several galleries with exhibitions that turn over regularly. They also have online resources to view.

Kalona Quilt & Textile Museum, Kalona, IA — this small museum has ongoing exhibits featuring Amish quilts. In addition, another gallery hosts changing exhibits of “English” (non-Amish) quilts.

Quilters Hall of Fame, Marion, IN — I haven’t been to this museum, so can’t say with confidence how it’s arranged or what the galleries feature. I do know if I were driving through the area (between Indianapolis and Fort Wayne,) I’d make the effort to stop.

This list from Craftsy offers more quilt museums you might find compelling, though they don’t necessarily have a historical context.

Across the US and internationally there must be many groups whose mission is to study quilt history. Unfortunately, I only know of one group that specializes in quilted textiles. That is
The American Quilt Study Group

Do you have favorite resources about quilt history? Please let us know in comments.

A Quilt Is More Than A Blanket

My guild quilt festival earlier this month was part of the annual arts festival in our community. Because of how it was promoted, many attending our show did not walk in the door as quilters, or even fans of quilts. Depending on experience, they might have had no prior knowledge of the variety and beauty of quilt styles. Most people who aren’t quilters aren’t aware of the process of creating a quilt. And few people, even many quilters, consider how much they are worth.

As a guild, our primary goal was to showcase our quilts and raise friends and awareness in the community. With that, we wanted to educate the public about quilting.

I was asked to create a slide show to demonstrate what a quilt is, and how a quilt is different from a blanket. This difference is where the value lies.

This brief video is the show I made, stripped of the quilt show credits and titles. It takes a little less than 3.5 minutes. Enjoy, and feel free to share.




I ordered longarm needles the other day. It was so easy to do that I could take for granted the availability of sewing needles. But needles have not always been so common.


Last summer a needle was found in a cave in Siberia. It was a little more than 7 centimeters long (about 3″,) made of bird bone. It is the oldest complete needle found and was made some 50,000 years ago. The maker was not homo sapiens, or even Neanderthal. It was Denisovan, a contemporary species of hominid! Other ancient needles have been found in places ranging from southern Africa to China to eastern Europe.


Elias Howe, an inventor of the sewing machine, developed the needle with the thread hole at the pointed tip. According to legend, “He had the idea of a machine with a needle which would go through a piece of cloth but he couldn’t figure out exactly how it would work. In his dream, cannibals were preparing to cook him and they were dancing around the fire waving their spears. Howe noticed at the head of each spear there was a small hole through the shaft and the up-and-down motion of the spears and the hole remained with him when he woke.” This dream led to his contributions to the modern sewing machine, circa 1845.


By 1847 with the introduction of specialty machinery, more than 50 million needles were made each week in the Redditch district of England. These needles were for hand-sewing tasks, and Redditch still specializes in them. (I’ve been looking for information about needle production in the US during the 1800s, but so far haven’t found any.) During the US Civil War, sewing needles became hard to acquire by Southern civilians. The North’s blockade kept most imported supplies from reaching southern ports. Soldiers’ uniforms and bedding took priority for the supplies that could be purchased or made. The lack of needles for civilians meant that repairing old clothing and bedding was difficult, if not impossible.


On the American frontier, settlers faced deprivations of many kinds. In 1855 the community of Pass Creek Canyon in Wyoming was visited by a peddler named Aaron Meier. He brought his wares to the remote settlers, including fabrics, tools, and candies. But the item they needed most was darning needles, as it had been months since the last one broke. With Christmas coming, the Jewish peddler made a gift of all the needles he had to the women of the community. Aaron Meier later founded Meier and Frank department stores in Portland, OR.


While England still dominates the production of hand-sewing needles, Germany makes the majority of machine sewing needles. Groz-Beckert and Schmetz are two brands you may know. Here is a fascinating video by Schmetz showing how needles are made.


Needles are not scarce anymore in the US. There is no reason not to replace them when they’re due. When a needle is dull, it needs to punch its way through fabric layers, making a popping sound. When it is sharp, it doesn’t make that noise. In addition, your machine motor needs to work a little harder with a dull needle, and you may hear the machine laboring.

Experts recommend changing the needle every 8-10 hours of sewing (machine time, not cutting, pressing, and pondering time). That may not sound like a lot, but if your machine stitches 1,000 stitches per minute, that’s actually about a HALF MILLION stitches! While you’re stitching, you may sew through several layers of fabric and batting, and occasionally hit pins. (I do!) Your needle takes a lot of abuse.

Take a look at some great photos by Schmetz Needles USA of a needle that looks sharp. Once magnified with increasing power, you can see the burr on the tip. A dull needle doesn’t do your machine or your project any good.

And please dispose of your needles carefully. I use an empty yogurt cup with a hole poked through the lid. When I get rid of needles, bent pins, and dead rotary cutter blades, they go in there. And the cup is always safely out of reach of children!


(I’ve shared this post before, multiple times. We have the right and duty in the US to vote, though there is no legal obligation. Consider the Suffragettes. Consider the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Consider that people continue to try to disenfranchise some of our citizens. The only way to ensure our rights is to vote. Please vote.)

Collection of the American Folk Art Museum

Made by Jessie Telfair of Georgia in 1983, this quilt embodies our collective political voice. From the American Folk Art Museum,

This is one of several freedom quilts that Jessie Telfair made as a response to losing her job after she attempted to register to vote. It evokes the civil rights era through the powerful invocation of one word, “freedom,” formed from bold block letters along a horizontal axis. Mimicking the stripes of the American flag, it is unclear whether the use of red, white, and blue is ironic or patriotic, or both.

Let freedom ring. Here is the Air Force Concert Band playing “America”.

And to maintain your freedom and our freedom, educate yourself on the issues, contact your elected officials to share your opinions, and VOTE.

The Future of Quilting, Part 2

I’m overwhelmed by what wonderful comments were contributed to my Part 1 post. Based on those responses, quilting is alive and well, at least with those who read here. (If you’d like to chime in, please do. I think we’ve all had fun reading these.) 

Quilting is a living craft, with a long history dating to ancient Egypt, and a long future stretching out far beyond our imagination. Like many crafts, especially those primarily engaged for self-expression, quilting’s popularity ebbs and flows. Influences include other parts of popular culture, resources available (including time,) and alternative means of self-expression. Only after printed fabric became readily and economically available in the early 1800s did quilting blossom as a pastime in the US. Prior to that, it was a rich woman’s hobby to create decorative objects, not primarily a means to create warm bed coverings, or to use up scraps.

Quilting’s current popularity has been, on average, growing since the 1970s. The ’60s ecology movement and the US bicentennial in 1976 helped spur interest that had waned throughout the middle of the century. From double-knits (who quilted with these?) to cotton-poly blends to twee calicoes to today’s wide variety of colors and prints, the options expanded. In 1979 the first rotary cutter was introduced, and gradually acceptance was granted for machine stitching, and even machine-quilting!

Today we live in a sweet spot for quilting. What other options could there be for cutting or stitching or quilting than those already available? These tasks can be done by machine or by hand, with sophisticated tools or those used for centuries. Either way, it is still a matter of layering three materials and stitching through them. What new could be done to attract more to the hobby?

in the last post I mentioned a couple of events that set me thinking about this subject. The first was the announcement last week of the demise of Quilters Newsletter. It will cease publication after the October issue. The magazine, around for 47 years, was a big part of the bicentennial revival of quilting. QN is known for its wide-ranging look at the quilting field, including interviews and reviews, information on shows, reader submissions, historical features, and patterns. I list patterns last because it is not a pattern magazine, unlike most others out there. In fact, it is the third magazine to shutter recently that didn’t focus on patterns. (There may be more — list them if you think of others.) The Quilt Life, featuring Alex Anderson and Ricky Tims, ceased publication in 2014. Quilter’s Home, published by the same company as Quilters Newsletter, ended in 2011.

When Quilter’s Home announced its closure, the editor’s blog said, “Effective with the August/September issue, Quilter’s Home will cease publication. Why? It seems more of you are turning to the web for quilting lifestyle information rather than the newsstand.” The internet killed the magazine.

The cause of Quilters Newsletter‘s closure wasn’t announced, though it apparently was accompanied by a series of layoffs by the parent company. In her post about it, Abby Glassenberg of While She Naps added more in comments:

In talking with several magazine publishers this week I’ve come to learn that it often isn’t subscriptions that keep a magazine afloat, it’s advertisers. It seems that the big companies that used to pay for print ads in sewing magazines (the sewing machine companies, fabric, thread, and notions companies) are now allocating their ad dollars differently (paying for Facebook ads, paying for Google search) and are reaching their audience directly through social media. Without their ad dollars it’s very difficult for magazines to stay afloat.

It might be that the future of publishing and the future of quilting are unrelated, but I don’t think so. Magazine publishers depend on advertisers; advertisers must find the viewers/readers/clicks where they can, and apparently it isn’t on the printed page. Or if it is, it must be on the pages of pattern magazines, which seem created simply to sell us lines of fabric.

What do we, as quilters, want from quilting periodicals? And why do we want it? Do you want your quilting magazines on paper or online, or both? Do you want to find both articles and patterns? Do you want articles focused on technique, or on personalities within the industry, or on industry trends, or on … what? Please feel free to comment below.

The other event that spurred my questions about the future of quilting was my local 4-H county fair. (4-H is a US organization for kids. It is delivered by university extension services to every county and parish in the country.) On Sunday I volunteered to judge this year’s quilt projects for my local guild. Though the fair has separate judging, my guild also reviews the entries and provides a prize for each of the three age groups. It is intended as motivation to continue in the craft. This was my fourth time judging and had the fewest entries by far. The intermediate age group (I think 7th – 9th grade) had only one entry, while the junior and senior categories had four each.

Who teaches kids to quilt? And how can we get more of them excited about trying? Are there ways to engage young adults?

I do not worry about quilting’s death. Barring catastrophe (widespread cotton blight, world war, worldwide economic depression…) I believe quilting will continue. As noted above, the popularity will ebb and flow over time for numerous reasons. But the craft and the industry continue to change through time. Individually most of us have little to no impact on either. Collectively there may be more impact. It might be fun to take a look at trends in quilting next…

What do you think about the health of quilting as a craft, and as an industry? I’d love to hear your comments below.