Making a Living Making Quilts: A Historical Perspective

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Quilts in an Economic Context: A New Blog

A new blog offering a historical perspective on making a living making quilts.
In which I ramble on about quilts and economics. I've been thinking quite a bit lately about where quilts come from and I realize I've had to unlearn much of my original thinking, picked up years ago when I first became interested in quilts.

In the early to mid-20th century popular quilt writing was valued more for mythology than accuracy. Nostalgia for an imagined colonial and pioneer past fed a sense of national pride. Patchwork quilts were  survivors that seemed to support that argument. Curators, popular historians and pattern companies shaped their stories to fit the myth.

In her 1915 book Marie Webster set the standard for thinking about 19th-century quilts by quoting another author:
 "Only he who knows what it means to hew a home out of the forest... and witness the devotedness that gathers around the old log schoolhouse and the pathos of a grave in the wilderness, can understand how sobriety, decency, age, devoutness, beauty and power belong to the story of those who began the mighty task of changing the wild west..."
"Old Ladies Quilting" from Webster's book
Not only were they always thrifty they were generally old.

Webster agreed:  "The comforts of the family depended upon the thrift, energy and thoughtfulness of the women. ..All day in the frontier cabin could be heard the hum of the spinning wheel, the clack of the loom or the click of the knitting needles."

Ruby Short McKim also "rambled with romance" as she noted in her book One Hundred and One Patchwork Patterns.
"To salvage beauty and usefulness from coarse waste material was the everyday accomplishment of our pioneer mothers who hooked rugs and pieced quilts.
"Some quilt names are of pioneer ancestry with a breath of dare and danger like 'Bear's Paw,' 'Crossed Canoes,' 'Indian Trail.' 'Prairie Queen.' "
Another quote from Webster: “We used to hear a great deal about the sad and lonely fate of the western farmer’s wife..."

No romantic story was too far-fetched.

"Shortly after the treaty of Paris [1898] whereby the Philippines were surrendered to the United States by Spain, a pioneer woman of northern California created and named this design for a coverlet. Before the spread was finished she sent one square to a sister in the east. From there and the west coast the pattern migrated in several directions." Nancy Cabot, Chicago Tribune, 1935.

Mary McElwain sold Bear's Paw quilts in the 1930s with a short story about a husky pioneer boyfriend hiding from a bear in a tree in the 1820s, copied from Ruth Finley.

I am wallowing in nostalgia and over-the-top copy writing here mainly to illustrate the point that we owe our standard image of the 19th century quiltmaker to these writers.

The image: An isolated woman working alone, recycling scraps from her ragbag, clever and artistic enough to imagine new patterns named for geese, bears and turkeys as she glanced out her cabin door at the wildlife. Occasionally finding respite from her solitary life in a group quilting bee.

Photo from Carlie Sexton pattern catalog about 1925

One woman: one quilt ---from pattern idea through ragbag to binding---with a little neighborly assistance in the quilting.

Money was never mentioned (you didn't need money if you were thrifty enough, apparently.)

No one ever shopped in a city store, sold a pattern, bought a bundle of scraps, hired someone to mark her quilt top, made up fabric kits or taught patchwork in a needlework class. Women did not work for pay, and they certainly didn't create time-honored American crafts for money.

The irony here is that Webster, McElwain, Finley, McKim and Nancy Cabot [whole real name was Loretta Leitner] each made a living doing many of those activities:

  • Writing about needlework
  • Lecturing about quilt history
  • Marking fabric and tops
  • Selling patterns
  • Making up kits of fabric
  • Basting tops
  • And selling finished quilts
Every one of those authors painted a false picture of the past by ignoring the economic and commercial aspects of women's needlework at which she herself was succeeding admirably.

Plus: I wanna know: Did city dwellers ever make quilts?

Dutch housewives making log cabin quilts in log cabins on the western frontier... wholesome history from Mary McElwain's aptly named Romance of the Village Quilts

See the whole booklet with all it's paradoxes here at the Quilt Index:

So sign up for email notices when I post here. Or check back every week or two to see a new rant.


  1. Thanks for starting a new blog, Barbara; I love all your posts about this subject and now there will be a blog devoted to it! Our understanding of history is so often skewed by myth and supposition. Exploring that topic as it relates to quilts and the women who made them is VERY interesting to me. Ramble on! (apologies to Led Zeppelin) Thanks from Ginny in Harrisburg, PA

  2. I look forward to seeing what myths you attempt to kick to the curb. I say attempt only due to the Underground Railroad quilts myth still being very much alive and still being spread around. I'm definitely not casting shade on your ability to find the facts to disprove it.

  3. Looking forward to more blog entries!It's bound to be interesting!

  4. I always figured pioneer women were scrambling just to keep their family fed (gardening) and clothed and covered at night. Can't wait for your ramblings.

  5. I have lately become enamored of using vintage textiles--blocks, tatted doilies, etc--in my work. I wish I know what the daily lives truly were like for the women who made them. Esp their economic life. I eagerly look forward to your future rants to glean some insight. Thanks, Barbara.

  6. This blog is sure to be interesting! Looking forward to reading your posts!

  7. Thank you Barbara for doing this. I absolutely love history of quilting. This is amazing. I so wish I had a group here at home that was available to study with. I love how much work you put into the research and that you are so happy to share. One of our wonderful quilt designers here in Australia has just reproduced a fabric which is yet to hit our shops, but, it has made me want to pull out the history books again. So much more to our quilts than fabric,needle and thread. I love reading and learning from all you share x

  8. Thanks Barbara -- this should help us all think twice about what it means to be a quilter!

  9. Looking forward to this all the others! :)

  10. This is so interesting. Looking forward to the new blog!

  11. Great topic! So looking forward to reading your blogs...thank you for your thoughtful writing!!!

  12. Thank you for sharing your knowledge! I re-read all your books, but love the Susan McCord book the most. I also like all the Lincoln info you've shared, & have the
    Lincoln quilt on my "to make" list 3 times -- for nephews. Also because I have boxes full of the right type of fabric, saved over the years. Thanks again, your new posts are a bright spot in my day.

  13. One more bit--- My great-grandma had a cleaning lady who came every day. In the mornings they both cooked & cleaned, then in afternoons after the men were fed & dishes done, they sat down to sew, mostly quilts, but sometimes baby clothes or aprons. Kids had to stay outside playing, but I was allowed to embroider my blocks granny had taught me to do, with them. Oh how grown up I felt...all of 7 years old.