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6.6: The Art of Quilting (1800-1900 CE)

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    Quilting has been a form of art since ancient Egypt and has been practiced for centuries. However, it was during the 19th century in the United States that quilting became more popular. Women used quilting to express their creativity and showcase their skills while fulfilling practical home needs. During this period, quilting was mainly a domestic practice done by women in their homes. They often gathered in small groups, known as quilting bees, to work together on quilts. This provided a social outlet and allowed for exchanging ideas and techniques.

    "Quilt" originates from the Latin term "Culcita," which means a stuffed sack. The English version of the word was derived from the French word "culite." Quilting has a rich history dates back to the Medieval era, where it was mainly utilized for clothing and bedding. Quilted clothing was a sign of nobility and was made using luxurious fabrics and intricate embroidery. For example, King Henry VIII of England's household inventory had "quyltes" and "coverpointes" in the bedding section and a green silk quilt that was initially created for Catherine of Aragon. This quilt had roses and pomegranates embroidered, showcasing the level of detail and artistry that went into quilting.

    In the 19th century, quilting was a significant part of American folk art. People crafted quilts by repurposing leftover fabric from clothing, curtains, and other household items, resulting in various patterns and designs. Many of these designs held symbolic meaning, such as the Log Cabin and the Nine Patch, representing the values of hard work and thriftiness. These quilts were decorative and practical, providing warmth during cold winter nights, and often passed down as family heirlooms. Furthermore, quilts served multiple purposes in the home, including use as bed coverings, tablecloths, and even as room dividers.

    During the 19th century, quilting became increasingly popular due to several reasons. The Industrial Revolution facilitated fabric availability, making it more accessible for women to gather materials for their quilts. Women's magazines and newspapers also provided extensive information on quilting patterns and techniques. Additionally, quilting was crucial in the abolitionist movement as slaves communicated with specific quilt patterns. For instance, the "Drunkard's Path" pattern was frequently used by slaves to indicate safe houses and routes on the Underground Railroad, helping them towards their freedom.

    Quilting art thrived during the Industrial Revolution as people had more leisure time. Women were no longer burdened with tasks like shearing sheep, spinning wool, or weaving cloth as these were easily accessible in town mercantile. Quilts went from simple one-piece bed covers to complex designs involving backing and padding. They were then hand-stitched using decorative patterns instead of the basic straight stitch.

    In the 19th century, quilting was mainly done at home. However, some professional quilt makers created more complex designs and used top-quality materials. As a result, their quilts were sold at higher prices than those made by women at home. Despite their expertise, many quilt makers struggled to make a living solely from their craft and had to find other sources of income. Quilting continued to be popular throughout the 19th century in the United States and adapted to changing times.

    Artist this Section:

    • Harriet Powers
    • Mary Simon
    • Mary Sophia Rice
    Interactive Element: The History of Quilting

    The history of quilting over 5000 years and the evolution of fabric over time.

    American Folk Art Quilting Patterns

    Throughout American history, quilting has played a significant role in folk art. These intricate creations were often crafted using leftover fabric from clothing, curtains, and other household items, resulting in a plethora of designs and patterns. Quilts were decorative and practical, providing warmth during chilly winter nights and being passed down through generations as cherished family heirlooms. Quilts were used daily to serve as versatile home accessories, doubling as bed coverings, tablecloths, or even room dividers. The patterns and designs utilized in American folk art quilting reflect the values, culture, and history of the communities where they originated. These patterns are characterized by a unique mix of colors, textures, and patterns, representing the diverse backgrounds of the skilled quilters who brought them to life. Popular designs like the Log Cabin and Nine Patch patterns have come to symbolize values like hard work and thriftiness, adding depth to these already rich and meaningful works of art.

    Log Cabin Quilt

    The Log Cabin Quilt pattern (6.6.1) is a quintessential American folk art design cherished for generations. Its intricate fabric strips are artistically arranged around a central square, symbolizing the hearth or fireplace at the heart of a log cabin. This classic pattern has been passed down through the years, with each quilter imbuing it with its unique flair and personality. The log cabin quilt connotes warmth, comfort, and the idea of home, which makes it a popular gift for newlyweds and homeowners alike. Its enduring popularity and timeless beauty is a testament to its place in American quilting history.

    a quilt with many colors of fabric in the lob cabin pattern
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Log Cabin Quilt (Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International)

    Crazy Quilt

    The Crazy Quilt (6.6.2) is a remarkable manifestation of an American folk art quilting pattern that has captivated the hearts of many. Its unique design features an assortment of oddly shaped pieces of fabric sewn together in a random patchwork. This quilting style became increasingly popular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it was commonly created using leftover scraps of cloth from various clothing and household items. The beauty of the crazy quilt lies in its ability to transform discarded materials into something wonderful and meaningful, reflecting the resourcefulness and creativity of its makers.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Crazy Quilt (Public Domain)

    Double Wedding Ring Quilt

    The Double Wedding Ring Quilt (6.6.3) is a cherished and timeless pattern in American folk art that has been passed down for generations. The exquisite design features interlocking rings that symbolize the unbreakable bond of marriage. Its popularity as a wedding gift is no surprise, as it captures the beauty and significance of the special occasion. The classic pattern can be tailored to individual preferences with a variety of various fabrics and colors, making it the perfect personalized present for any couple. With its rich history and limitless possibilities for customization, the Double Wedding Ring Quilt is an extraordinary keepsake that will be treasured for years to come.

    Quilt of many colors in the wedding ring pattern
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Double Wedding Quilt (Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International)

    Applique Designs: Baltimore Quilts

    Applique is a decorative technique that involves sewing small pieces of fabric onto a larger fabric background to create designs. This method gained popularity in quilting, especially during the 19th century. The Baltimore Album (6.6.4) style was one of the most sought-after applique designs during this era. These quilts originated from Baltimore, Maryland, in the mid-1800s and were renowned for their intricate designs and vibrant colors. The designs often highlighted floral motifs, birds, and other natural elements. Each block of the quilt would feature a unique design, and the entire quilt would comprise various blocks. Originating in Baltimore, Maryland, during the mid-19th century, these quilts are renowned for their gorgeous colors and intricate designs. Crafted with premium materials like silk and velvet, Baltimore quilts were often adorned with natural elements like floral patterns and birds. These quilts held significant sentimental value and were often passed down through generations as treasured family heirlooms. The artistry and beauty behind Baltimore quilts continue to captivate and inspire quilt enthusiasts today.

    Baltimore quilts were crafted by affluent women with the means and leisure to pursue the craft of quilt making. These women frequently belonged to quilting clubs or societies and convened regularly to work on their quilts and exchange ideas and techniques. The Baltimore quilt designs commonly featured floral motifs, birds, and other natural elements. Each quilt block differed from the others, and the entire quilt comprised several distinct blocks, each with its unique design. The designs were often appliquéd onto a white or light-colored backdrop, creating a stunning contrast that highlighted the intricate details of the designs. The Baltimore quilt style rose to popularity in the 1840s and 1850s and continued to be in vogue throughout the rest of the century. The quilts were frequently bestowed as gifts or used as ornamental pieces in the homes of their creators.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Baltimore Album Quilt (Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication)

    Mary Simon (1808-1877)

    One of the most famous Baltimore quilts is the "Mary Simon Album Quilt," made in 1843 by Mary Simon, a member of the Baltimore Quilters Society. The quilt comprises 25 blocks, each with a different design, and features a variety of floral and geometric patterns. The quilt is known for its intricate details and beautiful colors and is considered one of the finest examples of a Baltimore quilt.

    Mary Simon was a wealthy woman with the time and resources to devote to quilt making. She was a member of the Baltimore Quilters Society, known for its emphasis on fine craftsmanship and attention to detail. The society met regularly to work on their quilts and share ideas and techniques. The quilt features a variety of floral and geometric patterns; each meticulously appliquéd onto a white or light-colored background. The designs are made of various materials, including silk, wool, and cotton, and are embellished with embroidery, beading, and other decorative elements. Each block of the quilt tells a story, with many featuring the names of friends and family members, as well as important dates and events. The center block of the quilt features the name "Mary Simon" in large letters, surrounded by a wreath of flowers.

    The Mary Simon Album Quilt is known for its use of color, with each block featuring a unique combination of shades and hues. The colors range from soft pastels to bold and bright tones and are expertly blended to create a harmonious and balanced overall effect. The quilt has been well-preserved over the years and is now part of the Baltimore Museum of Art collection. It is considered a masterpiece of American quilt making and is admired for its artistry and beauty.

    In addition to its aesthetic value, the Mary Simon Album Quilt (6.6.5) is also a valuable historical artifact. It provides a glimpse into the lives of women in 19th-century Baltimore and reflects the cultural and social influences of the time. The quilt is a testament to the skill and creativity of its maker and the importance of the art of quilt-making in American history. Baltimore quilts were often made using high-quality materials, such as silk and velvet, and were highly prized by their owners. They were often passed down from generation to generation as family heirlooms, and many have been preserved and are on display in museums and private collections today. The quilt is a true treasure of American art and culture.

    a pictorial quilt with many scenes of flowers and baskets
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Mary Simon Album Quilt (Public Domain)

    The Industrial Revolution

    The Industrial Revolution profoundly impacted woven fabric production, revolutionizing the textile industry and changing how textiles were made and distributed. Before the Industrial Revolution, textiles were primarily produced by hand, using traditional methods such as spinning and weaving. These methods were slow and labor-intensive, and the production of textiles was limited to small quantities. Textile production was also primarily confined to the home, with women and children working in the cottage industry to produce textiles for their families and local markets.

    However, the development of new technologies and manufacturing processes during the Industrial Revolution led to significant changes in the textile industry. The development of the power loom, for example, significantly increased the speed and efficiency of weaving, allowing for the mass production of woven fabrics. The power loom was invented in 1784 by Edmund Cartwright and was powered by steam or water, allowing for continuous operation and the production of large quantities of fabric. The power loom replaced the traditional handloom, which had limited weaving speed and capacity and allowed for producing a more comprehensive range of fabrics, including cotton, wool, and silk.

    The development of the power loom was just one example of the technological advancements during the Industrial Revolution. Other innovations included the development of the spinning jenny, the spinning frame, and the cotton gin, which significantly increased the efficiency of textile production. These innovations led to the growth of the textile industry and the rise of textile factories, which employed large numbers of workers and produced large quantities of fabric for domestic and international markets. The development of new transportation technologies, such as the steam engine and the railroad, also facilitated the distribution of textiles, allowing them to be transported more quickly and efficiently to markets worldwide.

    The production of woven fabrics during the Industrial Revolution profoundly impacted society, transforming how people dressed and the types of fabrics available. The mass production of fabrics led to lower prices and increased accessibility, making clothing more affordable.

    The First Sewing Machine

    The invention and development of sewing machines in the 19th century revolutionized how textiles were produced and transformed the fashion industry. Sewing machines significantly increased the speed and efficiency of sewing, making it possible to produce garments and other textiles on a large scale. The first sewing machine was invented in 1790 by Thomas Saint, but in the mid-19th century, sewing machines became widely available and practical for use in homes and factories. The first commercially successful sewing machine was patented by Elias Howe in 1846 and was followed by other inventors, including Isaac Singer and Walter Hunt.

    Sewing machines were used in factories and homes, allowing women to produce clothing and quilt more quickly and efficiently for their families. The development of the sewing machine also led to the rise of home sewing as a popular hobby, with women able to create clothing and accessories. The invention and development of the sewing machine paved the way for the growth of the garment industry and the rise of mass-produced clothing and also led to the development of new types of fabrics, designs, and techniques. Despite its impact on society and fashion, the use of sewing machines also had negative consequences, particularly in terms of poor working conditions and low factory worker wages.

    The Underground Railroad Quilts

    The Underground Railroad was necessary in the United States during the 19th century because it allowed enslaved African Americans to escape slavery and seek freedom. Slavery was a brutal and inhumane practice legal in many parts of the country. Slavery devastated the lives of enslaved people as they were treated as property rather than human beings, and their labor was used to generate wealth for their owners. Enslaved people had no rights or freedoms and were often subjected to cruel and violent treatment. They were denied education, access to healthcare, and the ability to make choices about their life choices.

    The Underground Railroad provided enslaved people a way to escape this brutal system. The network of secret routes and safe houses allowed them to travel north to states where slavery was illegal or Canada, where they would be completely free. The people who participated in the Underground Railroad were risking their lives to help others, and escaping was often dangerous and challenging.

    The Underground Railroad was also important because it challenged the institution of slavery itself. It was a form of resistance against a fundamentally unjust and immoral system. The people who participated in the Underground Railroad were taking a stand against slavery and demonstrating that they were willing to fight for the rights and freedoms of all people, regardless of their race or status. The Underground Railroad was important for enslaved people and the broader struggle for civil rights and equality. It provided a powerful example of how ordinary people could unite to fight for justice and freedom. The legacy of the Underground Railroad continues to inspire people today to work toward a more just and equitable society. One of the lesser-known symbols of the Underground Railroad was quilts, which were used to communicate information to those seeking freedom. Each quilt pattern had a specific meaning, and these patterns were used to convey information about the Underground Railroad. For example, a quilt with a flying geese pattern might indicate it was time to start moving north. A bear paw pattern might mean it was time to take a break and seek shelter. A wagon wheel pattern might indicate that a wagon could take passengers on the next leg of their journey.

    Many of the quilt patterns used by the Underground Railroad were already popular at the time, but their meanings were often known only to those in the know. Quilts were also used to identify safe houses along the route. A quilt with a star pattern hanging outside a house might indicate that it was a safe place to rest and refuel before continuing the journey. Using quilt patterns to communicate information was a clever way to avoid detection by slave owners and other enemies of the Underground Railroad. Since quilts were such a ubiquitous part of daily life, their use as a covert messaging system was often overlooked. Additionally, using quilt patterns meant that information could be conveyed without needing to be written or spoken language, which was necessary for enslaved people who might not have had access to education or spoke different languages. By using quilts to communicate information, enslaved people could escape to freedom while avoiding detection by their enemies. Today, the legacy of the Underground Railroad lives on through the continued use of quilt patterns and the display of quilts in public spaces.

    Interactive Element: Quilts Underground

    This video shows a group member who speaks about the significance of quilts in the Underground Railroad and how symbols and designs embedded in the quilts helped lead slaves to freedom.

    Quilts for Civil War Soldiers

    The American Civil War was a significant conflict in the United States from 1861 to 1865. It was fought between the northern states, the Union, and the southern states, the Confederacy. The war was fought over several issues, including states' rights, slavery, and the balance of power between the federal government and the individual states.

    One of the leading causes of the Civil War was the issue of slavery. Many people in the North believed slavery was a cruel and inhumane practice that needed to be abolished. In contrast, many South people believed it was a necessary part of their economy and way of life. The issue of states' rights also played a role in the conflict, with some states arguing that they had the right to secede from the Union if they so chose. The war began in April 1861 when Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter, a Union military installation in South Carolina. The conflict quickly escalated, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides lost their lives over the next four years. The Union ultimately emerged victorious, with the Confederacy surrendering in April 1865.

    The Civil War had a profound impact on the United States. It led to the end of slavery, which was abolished by ratifying the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in December 1865. It also strengthened the federal government's power and helped establish the United States as a unified nation. However, the war also had significant social and economic consequences, including the destruction of infrastructure and the displacement of millions of people.

    During the Civil War, quilts played an essential role in providing warmth and comfort to soldiers on both sides of the conflict. Many soldiers were poorly equipped and lacked warm clothing, and quilts were a practical and much-needed item that could help them stay warm in the field. Women's groups and volunteers from the North and South worked tirelessly to create and distribute quilts to soldiers. Quilts were also used to raise morale and provide a sense of home to soldiers far away from their families and loved ones. Quilts were often made with patriotic designs featuring symbols like flags, eagles, and other patriotic motifs. Some quilts also included messages of support and encouragement for the soldiers. In addition to providing warmth and comfort, quilts had practical uses in the field. They could be used as a makeshift stretcher or bandage, rolled up, and as a pillow or cushion. Quilts were also used to carry food supplies, line tents, or cover drafty windows.

    Harriet Powers (1837-1910)

    Harriet Powers was an African American quilt maker who lived in Georgia in the late 19th century. She is best known for her intricate and beautiful quilts, which depicted scenes from African American history, folklore, and religion. Her work has been celebrated as essential to American quilting and African American art history. Powers was born into slavery in 1837 and spent much of her life working as a sharecropper and farm laborer. She learned to quilt from her mother and grandmother, who their African ancestors had taught. Powers' quilts were made using an application technique in which small pieces of fabric are sewn onto a more considerable size of fabric backing to create a design.

    Powers' quilts were unique in using African American imagery and storytelling. One of her most famous quilts, the Bible Quilt (6.6.6) (depicts scenes from the Bible alongside images from African American folklore and history. Another quilt, the "Pictorial Quilt," shows scenes from the life of Christ, as well as images of animals, birds, and plants. The Bible Quilt is one of Harriet Powers' most famous quilts and is notable for its intricate applique design and the rich symbolism it contains. The quilt comprises several panels, each depicting scenes from the Bible alongside images from African American folklore and history. One of the most striking panels shows the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, with the serpent and the apple prominently featured. Another panel shows the story of Jacob's Ladder, with angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven. Other panels depict scenes from the New Testament, including the Nativity and the Crucifixion of Christ. In addition to these biblical scenes, the quilt also features images from African American folklore and history, such as a tree of life surrounded by animals and a pair of chickens representing fertility and abundance. The quilt also includes inscriptions and Bible verses written in ink directly onto the fabric.

    The Pictorial Quilt (6.6.7) is another of Harriet Powers' famous quilts and comprises several panels, each depicting scenes from the Bible and African American folklore. One of the most striking panels shows the Nativity, with the baby Jesus lying in a manger surrounded by Mary and Joseph and several angels and shepherds. Another panel depicts the Crucifixion, with Jesus hanging on the cross and soldiers and onlookers gathered around him. Other panels feature images of animals, birds, and plants, including a lion, a peacock, and a palm tree. These images were likely chosen for their symbolic significance, as lions and peacocks are often associated with royalty and power, and palm trees symbolize victory and triumph.

    Like the Bible Quilt, the Pictorial Quilt also includes inscriptions and Bible verses written in ink directly onto the fabric. These inscriptions provide additional context and commentary on the images depicted in the quilt and her deep knowledge of the Bible and African American cultural traditions. It is also a powerful symbol of how African Americans used art and storytelling to express their faith and assert their cultural identity in the face of oppression. Her quilts are a powerful reminder of the importance of preserving African American cultural traditions and telling the stories of those who came before us.

    A quilt with different religious scenes in muted colors
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Bible Quilt 1886 (Public Domain)
    a quilt with various scenes of people, animals and the sun
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Pictorial Quilt 1895 - 1898 (Public Domain)

    The Amish Quilts

    Amish quilts from the 19th century are renowned for their beauty, craftsmanship, and unique aesthetic. The Amish community, a religious group known for their simple and traditional way of life, began making quilts in the early 1800s to provide warmth and comfort during the cold winter. Amish quilts from this period were typically made using a patchwork technique, with small pieces of fabric sewn together to create a larger design. The fabrics used were often wool, cotton, or silk and were sourced from various sources, including old clothing and feed sacks.

    One of the defining features of Amish quilts from the 19th century is their use of bold, solid colors with little to no pattern or embellishment. This reflects the Amish belief in simplicity and humility and their rejection of ostentation and vanity. Despite their simplicity, Amish quilts from the 19th century are often gorgeous, with a strong sense of symmetry, proportion, and balance. Many quilts feature geometric designs, such as squares, triangles, and diamonds, arranged in intricate patterns that create a sense of movement and depth.

    Amish quilts from this period were made primarily for practical purposes, such as keeping warm or covering a bed. However, they also served as a form of artistic expression and a way to celebrate the creativity and skill of the Amish women who made them.

    Quilts of the Prairie

    When 270 million acres of land were offered for homesteading, the westward migration started moving people into the new 30 states of the west. People spent months packing for their trip, and in addition to food and equipment, quilts were an essential part of the journey. They brought quilts packed away as treasures in chests, and they brought them as everyday necessities for the trip. They also packed their needles and threads and made quilts when traveling and at their final destinations, creating new patterns documenting the history of their lives on the trail in the quilts.

    These quilts were typically made using patchwork and applique techniques and were often created out of necessity and for decorative purposes. One of the most distinctive features of quilts of the prairie is their use of floral motifs and other natural imagery, which reflected the women's close connection to the land and their appreciation for the beauty of the prairie landscape. Many quilts also featured geometric designs, such as stars, diamonds, and triangles, adding symmetry and balance to the overall design. Quilts of the prairie were often made from fabric scraps, including old clothing and feed sacks, and were created using hand-sewing and machine-sewing techniques. The quilts were often designed and created by groups of women working together as part of a quilting bee or as a way to pass the time during long, cold winters.

    Hawaiian Quilts

    Hawaiian quilts have a long and rich history that dates back to the 19th century. These quilts are known for their intricate designs and bold, vibrant colors and are highly prized by collectors and historians alike. The tradition of quilting was brought to Hawaii by Christian missionaries in the early 19th century and quickly became a popular pastime among Hawaiian women. The quilts they created were often made from bright, solid-colored fabrics and featured bold graphic designs inspired by the natural world, such as flowers, leaves, and birds.

    One of the most distinctive features of Hawaiian quilts is their use of a technique known as "snowflake quilting," in which the quilt top is folded into quarters, and a snowflake-like design is cut into the top layer. The design has intricate hand-quilting stitches, creating a textured, three-dimensional effect. Hawaiian quilts were often made to commemorate special occasions, such as weddings or births, and were considered treasured family heirlooms. They were sometimes given as gifts or sold as souvenirs to island visitors.

    Mary Sophia Rice (1816-1911)

    Na Kalaunu Me Na Kahili (Crowns and Kahilis) was made on Kauai Island in 1886 and is attributed to Mary Sophia Rice. Rice was an American Missionary and educator from the United States who moved with her husband to the Oregon territories and eventually the Hawaiian Islands. The white background is one whole piece of cloth that the red fabric is appliqued onto. The pattern radiates out from the center, producing a very symmetrical look. The Kahili, (6.6.8) represented in the quilt by the four feathery-looking objects, symbolizes the chiefs and noble houses. The kahili was carried by the representative of the state for the king. The Kahilis were made from long bones with birds of prey feathers. The red center applique stands for the crown of the king.

    a quilt of red and white in a repeated pineapple pattern
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Na Kalaunu Me Na Kāhili, quilt attributed to Mary Sophia Rice, c. 1886 (Copyright; author via source)

    Quilting has been around since the earliest days of using bone needles and leather thread to keep warm. Even today, quilting is still prevalent in the United States and worldwide. While the techniques and materials have advanced, the fundamental principles remain unchanged. Quilting is still an outlet for creative expression and a way for both men and women to showcase their skills while serving practical purposes in the home. During the 19th century, quilting played a significant role in American culture, providing a social outlet for women and serving as a means of communication for slaves seeking freedom. It also played a part in the women's suffrage movement. Today, quilting remains a cherished art form that continues to evolve with the times.

    This page titled 6.6: The Art of Quilting (1800-1900 CE) is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Deborah Gustlin & Zoe Gustlin (Open Educational Resource Initiative at Evergreen Valley College) .

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