There are several popular metaphors for our diverse, pluralistic American society, but the quilt may be the best of the lot. The old “melting pot” metaphor, invented nearly a century ago by Israel Zangwill, seems out-of-date in a culture where people are proud to be American but deeply divided over numerous issues. The “salad bowl” metaphor, too, has wilted; it’s too easy to pick out unwanted ingredients. The quilt metaphor, to its credit, suggests that many and varied pieces can successfully be assembled and stitched together to create a beautiful and functional whole without any of the pieces losing their distinct characteristics.
It isn’t widely known, but there is powerful precedent for declaring the quilt metaphor to be the best descriptor for America. During the Civil War, Henry W. Bellows of the U.S. Sanitary Commission compared women’s work to a “great national quilting party.” At this party, American women created a National Quilt of “many patches, each of its own color or stuff”, he wrote, which were “tacked and basted, then sewed and stitched by women’s hands, wet often with women’s tears, and woven in with women’s prayers.” Bellows predicted that the new quilt that would emerge at war’s end would “tear anywhere sooner than in the seams, which they have joined in a blessed and inseparable unity.”1
We again live in a time of discord. Politicians berate each other uncivilly in the halls and chambers of the Capitol, while pundits scream at each other on so-called news shows. Americans seem more polarized than ever, divided into red and blue camps, yet they long for compromise and cooperation for the good of the country and everyone in it. Most of us want to believe that Americans can come together to create a functional whole, just as numerous pieces of fabric can be joined to form a beautiful quilt. We want to believe that we can still pitch in together to accomplish tasks that need to be done, as we did in mobilizing all sectors of our society to win World War II. Most Americans do care about what happens to others, honor our heroes, and believe that we can air our disagreements and come to compromise in a cooperative and civil manner. For all these reasons the American quilt has become both cultural icon and national metaphor. That is appropriate, for in their various forms, both elaborate and humble, they give visual expression to deeply held values and traditions we think of as American at the core.
Marshall Fishwick, a popular-culture expert, describes icons as “external expressions of internal convictions” and notes that they are “sensitive indicators of who we are, where we come from, where we intend to go.”2 Anthropologist and historian David Gerald Orr stresses that these visual icons “externalize our own quest for cultural identity” and reinforce “our firm commitments to aspirations and ideals.”3 I have taken their observations to heart since one morning in April 1992 when I received an unexpected phone call from the Washington Post.
The reporter on the other end of the line, Jura Koncius, wanted to know what I, then serving as president of the American Quilt Study Group, thought of the Smithsonian’s decision to have four of its famous, one-of-a-kind quilts copied overseas for retail sale in the United States. Knowing nothing of this plan, later known as the Smithsonian Quilt Controversy or the Great Quilt Debate, I initially responded, “Oh my gosh—that’s like sending an icon to be mass produced.” We discussed the matter for a short while, and she thanked me for talking with her. That, I thought, was that.
But it turned out not to be the innocent “that”; it turned out to be the enveloping “this.” On April 10, 1992, this is what happened: Papers across the country picked up the resulting Washington Post article, and gave it headlines like “No Covering Up the Quilt Quarrel” and “Smithsonian Wraps Itself in Controversy.” The first paragraph of Koncius’s article, based on numerous interviews and not just her telephone conversation with me, opened with these words: “‘It’s like sending an icon to be mass produced’, said Virginia Gunn, a quilt historian. ‘The Smithsonian should be above those things.’”
This brief quote gave me a moment of fame, but more importantly, it made me stop to think: Why had the word “icon” instantly popped into my mind upon first learning of the Smithsonian’s plan? Why did that word resonate with so many women who, I soon discovered, were incensed by the decision of America’s national museum to offer cheap reproductions of well-known historic quilts like Harriet Powers’s “Bible Quilt” and Susan Strong’s “Great Seal of America” quilt? Before too long, it dawned on me what was at stake in this seemingly minor tempest.
By the early 1990s, much of the clothing Americans wore was already being manufactured in other countries. American women were happy to be the world’s largest consumers of mass-produced, ready-to-wear fashion—objects they had once made themselves. Mass-producing America’s iconic quilts in another country, however, was a different matter. The new practice seemed distinctly un-American, especially when adopted by an institution whose mission is, in part, “to preserve and exhibit the nation’s relics and icons.” For numerous American women and their families, quilts carried much more meaning than clothing that regularly went out of style. While quilt styles have changed across time and place, these textile artifacts remained valuable. Most that survived hard use were treasured as unique, handmade heirlooms that reflected each maker’s spirit and skill. Thus, quilts may have been packed away, but they were almost never thrown away, unless moths or fire or flood or mold had rendered them unrecognizable.
American women have always been able to produce functional quilts in large quantities if the occasion demanded the effort. They made thousands of cot-size quilts for soldiers during the Civil War and thousands of comforters to send to war-torn Europe after World War II, fully expecting these to be worn to shreds. American women readily dedicated hours of time and effort in numerous ways to help people in need, just as they donated money to causes they believed in. But when quilts were made and given, the process was as important as the product. Quilts represented a higher form of material empathy because they were inevitably personal and each was unique. Not for all the cash in Kansas could anyone go out and buy another just like the one given. The fact that quilts therefore literally went beyond money made them not only different but in an ineffable way transcendent.
This sense of the difference that inheres in the making and giving of quilts has persisted over many years. A good example comes from the mid-1980s, when women and men joined forces to support the NAMES project, a still ongoing venture. They fabricated thousands of memorial panels to be assembled into an AIDS quilt, fulfilling Cleve Jones’s vision of a huge patchwork quilt that would evoke “warm old memories of comfort” for those grieving the loss of loved ones. Seeing these unique and personal quilts stretched out to cover the Mall in Washington, DC, and other sites poignantly and graphically recorded the huge extent of this tragic disease and the toll it took on those left behind to mourn.
In recent years, too, as Americans have been intentionally shielded from seeing the flag-covered coffins of fallen soldiers as they arrived from Iraq and Afghanistan, quiltmakers have recognized the terrible human cost of war and created quilts that honor our fallen and wounded heroes. Members of the Quilts of Valor program create quilts as gifts to heal and honor the mounting numbers of wounded soldiers, while those in the Home of the Brave Quilt Project present quilts to the families of fallen soldiers to offer comfort and recognize their loved ones’ tremendous sacrifice.
Even if they have never stitched or even owned a quilt, most Americans know what they are. They consider them “labors of love” that speak eloquently of effort and care on the part of their makers. They almost invariably evoke a sudden softness of feeling, an almost sacred sense of connection to hearth and home and a simpler, more innocent time. They seem to breathe the virtue of patience. Of course, American quiltmakers today can purchase the latest materials, use the most up-to-date technology, and even enlist the help of professionals to complete their projects. But to make a quilt they still have to invest significant amounts of their own time, energy and, above all creativity in the finished product. The process of production is still an important part of the mystique of the finished object.
Since fabricating even the simplest quilt involves many decisions and hours of time, mass-producing quilts to be sold at low prices for profit has never been part of the American tradition of quiltmaking. But after the 1976 Bicentennial celebration, many families embraced “country” styles of interior decoration, reflecting variations of America’s colonial and pioneer roots. A quilt, either antique or newly made, became a key element in a truly “country” room. Little wonder, then, that eager entrepreneurs and cash-strapped museums dreamed of providing relatively inexpensive quilts to sell to the public. Even quilts made by women working in cottage industries in Appalachia and the Deep South, however, could not be sold cheaply because of the work involved. So to lower the price, quiltmaking had to be outsourced somewhere where people were willing to work for meager wages.
What was just good business to some was an outrage to others. American women did not want quilt production to become the latest chapter in the age-old “song of the shirt” saga, where women literally “died by the needle”, unable to sustain their families or themselves by sewing. American women were delighted that their quilts had inspired others around the globe to take up quilting and shape the craft to suit their own cultural idioms, but they definitely did not want their special form of art cheapened and copied in sweatshops overseas for sale in the United States. This wasn’t just about the morality of abetting sweatshop labor; it was a violation of the spirit of the quilt itself. It contradicted and defamed the irreducible union of process and product that constitutes a quilt.
Nevertheless, by the spring of 1993 more than 23,000 Smithsonian imported quilts, hand stitched in Chinese factories under the auspices of American Pacific Enterprises, had been sold through Spiegel catalogs and other venues. Prices ranged from $200 to $400. This is a big country, and obviously lots of consumers were happy with the product and the prices, but not everyone was going to let this outrage go unchallenged. A group of five Tennessee women formed the American Quilt Defense Fund to provide national leadership and funding to help the Smithsonian find more suitable ways to call attention to its quilts.4 Their efforts, supported by quilt organizations like the American Quilt Study Group, the American Quilters’ Society and the National Quilting Association, culminated in a national symposium in March 1995 called “What’s American about American Quilts?”, held at the Smithsonian.5
In the late 1990s, the furor surrounding the Great Quilt Controversy gradually subsided. The taste for “country decorating” remained but took on new forms. The workmanship on inexpensive mass-produced quilts proved to be of inferior quality. While Chinese women are capable of creating needlework as beautiful as that done by American women, the outsourcing experiment proved that superior quiltmaking takes time and dedication, and does not thrive in the face of production quotas. American quilts remain a labor of love, and it is a matter of very deep satisfaction to some people to know in their hearts that some things intrinsic to American culture, at least, cannot be faked, demeaned, debased, cheapened or pimped for cash.
It took time for quilts to achieve an iconic status in American culture. In the first place, quilted textiles were not an American invention. The roots of quilts and quilting can be traced back to the medieval period in Europe. These skills came to this country with early settlers immigrating from England, France and the Dutch Republic. In the colonies, quilts, whether imported or made at home, were mainly found in the homes of the well-to-do. While continuing to make the whole-cloth and central-medallion quilts typical of Europe, American women also began to construct quilts in small sections or blocks that could later be joined to create a finished top. A woman could work on such blocks in a small space and easily carry the needed materials to other work sites, including a friend’s home. This style of quilting became the most typical for Americans. The numerous choices involved in making a quilt—selecting a pattern, colors and fabric; arranging and setting the completed blocks; adding a quilting design to hold the layered object together; and finishing the edges of the quilt—almost ensured that each completed quilt became a unique work tied to its maker.
As the industrial revolution caused the price of manufactured textiles to decrease, quiltmaking became a major democratic art in the newly formed United States. Later immigrants from countries with strong traditions for weaving rather than quilting soon picked up the craft from their “English” neighbors. The Pennsylvania-Germans, for example, became renowned for colorful appliqué quilts that echoed their folk culture. The United States became the global center of quiltmaking, and the familiar forms of the 19th- and 20th-century quilts were shaped by American women of all backgrounds and every socio-economic class.
While we like to think of our ancestors fashioning quilts from scraps of fabric to survive trying conditions, many quilts, even in pioneer days, were made for reasons that had little to do with economy or physical survival. They were neither the cheapest nor easiest way to keep someone warm, as the effort lavished upon them indicates. Women, most of whom had earned their stitching skills through hours of practice as young girls, found time for quiltmaking in their demanding work schedules because they wanted to express their creativity and beautify their homes.
Moreover, in an era when fine arts like painting and sculpture were considered strictly male domains, women focused their talent and attention on domestic arts. By doing so they proved that domestic arts could also be fine arts, involving skill-sets in no way inferior to those of men. Quiltmakers were clearly influenced by national trends in decorative arts. Periodicals kept them up-to-date on the favored styles, like the silk-embroidered crazy quilts of the 1880s. Still, in every era, regional favorites for patterns and techniques developed and flourished and visually reinforced a shared vision of life and its meaning. Even as broader national influences increased in number, community and regional influences remained strong. Groups isolated by religious choice, like the Amish, or by circumstance and location, like the quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, sometimes developed unique interpretations. Late 20th-century tastemakers have placed these particular artifacts on gallery walls where they carry as much meaning as any painting, transforming them into highly sought-after art objects.
These were not the first quilts to be put on public display. By the 1840s, American women were encouraged to enter their quilts and needlework in county agricultural fairs or urban industrial exhibitions and even qualified for prizes. Their participation helped ensure needed attendance at these venues just like quilt exhibits help increase attendance at museums today. Newspapers often declared these displays to be seas of beauty, beyond words to describe. Women carefully studied them to gather new ideas for their own work, just as men came to fairs to discover improved agricultural or mechanical practices.
Women’s lives centered mainly on the domestic sphere until the 1960s, but women were very aware of how their lives were affected by the broader issues of the day. They learned to use their design skills to exploit quiltmaking for their own purposes. They made graphic quilts to support causes and candidates they believed in. These large quilts conveyed powerful textile messages on social and political issues of the day. Quilts function like large works of art: Whether stretched on a bed or a clothesline, quilts are striking and arresting visual objects, colorful and eye-catching. Women in the United States could not vote until 1920, but through quiltmaking they were not voiceless. The men in their families and neighborhoods had no doubt where their loyalties lay. They made quilts to raffle or sell for worthy causes, to build churches and procure school materials, to support missionary efforts, to raise funds for charity and relief, and to promote awareness for worthy causes like abolition and temperance.
Quilts also became the ultimate gifts of love to acknowledge and celebrate life-cycle events. Women made baby quilts, fashioned birthday quilts with animals and objects to help children learn about the world, gave gifts to celebrate graduations and other accomplishments, and to get newlyweds off to a good start. Quilts were made to send with friends and relatives moving to new places as reminders of the concern and care of those left behind. Women gave quilts to people who had lost their belongings in storms, fires and floods. They made quilted lap robes to warm the elderly and memorial quilts to record and celebrate the lives of loved ones lost at sea, in war, or by old age. They made quilts to record significant events in their own life and family, which became scrapbooks of memories and tangible links to family and friends. Some were elaborate and intricate, others simple and humble, but they all served basic human needs for people whose lives remained centered on family, home and community.
Women also intentionally made quilts for the generations to come. These quilts served as visible reminders of a life lived, a tangible expression of achievement in a world of seemingly pointless repetitive tasks. Eliza Calvert Hall’s words, written in 1898, continue to resonate today. Her fictional character Aunt Jane of Kentucky colloquially expressed the everyday life of women and “the soul’s longing for earthly immortality.” Aunt Jane maintained that “if a woman was to see all the dishes that she had to wash before she died, piled up before her in one pile, she’d lie down and die right then and there.” She believed, however, that “when one o’ my grandchildren or great-grandchildren sees one o’ these quilts, they’ll think about Aunt Jane, and wherever I am then, I’ll know I ain’t forgotten.”6
While some women signed and dated their quilts, most did not. These were not, however, anonymous works of art. The maker’s immediate family, as well as neighbors and friends, had likely seen the work in progress and knew exactly who had made the finished object. As family members passed down the quilt, some added paper tags with the original maker’s name. Over time and generations, the tags were often lost and names forgotten. The family treasure became “your grandmother’s quilt” or “the quilt made by great-grandmother’s second husband’s first wife.” Still, the value of the quilt as a cultural icon for that family and community remained. Surely its maker had been a hard-working, God-fearing woman, a person who made the most of her talents and resources, and who had served her family, community and country to the best of her ability.
Women continued to make quilts even during eras when they were not the most favored bed coverings, and when families could afford to buy instead of make the everyday things they needed. They did so because producing quilts was not drudgery; it was meaningful work because meaning was poured into it. Making quilts allowed women to spend time thinking and reflecting. As they enjoyed the satisfaction of watching their artistic work take shape, they could mull over difficult decisions, plan, contemplate, anticipate, forgive and forget. Quilting time was important rejuvenative downtime, not a mere pastime.
Moreover, when women gathered to work on quilts, they strengthened their social networks and support systems. They found joy in working together on a quilt for someone they knew or to advance a cause they supported. While sitting around the table or quilting frame, they discussed common problems and interests. They exchanged recipes and solutions to household problems. They sought and offered advice. They shared deep concerns. Of course they also had time to “gossip” and catch up on the latest happenings in each other’s extended families and in the community, but to suppose that is all they did is to misunderstand them, and to forget that the process was as important as the product in many quiltmakers’ lives.
Today quilts are hung on the walls of homes or galleries more often than they are laid on beds. Studio artists now select “fiber art” as one of their mediums of choice. This is not to say quilting no longer takes place outside of studios. Far from it. Today, quilting is a more than $3 billion per year industry and members of local, state and regional quilt guilds regularly mount displays in local churches and schools.7
These homegrown quilters also continue to support the causes they believe in. Not long ago, in Wayne County, Ohio, where I live, the Wooster quilt guild hosted its semi-annual display of quilts. In the same week, the small town of Kidron, Ohio, hosted the annual Ohio Mennonite Relief Sale and Auction. Hundreds of beautiful quilts made and donated by women of the area—from Mennonite, Amish, Apostolic and Brethren congregations—went up for auction to raise money to support the year-around humanitarian and relief efforts of these faith communities. The craft of quilting and the values that these quilts visually represent are still alive and well at the grassroots level in America.
All across this country, quilts continue to be made because they continue to express the cultural values and traditions of Americans as individuals, as families, as groups and as a nation. They reflect and reinforce American ideals and goals such as family, freedom, opportunity and service. They are icons for America, representing all ages, sexes, faiths, persuasions, economic means, ethnicities and backgrounds. We continue to admire their beautiful patterns, colors and workmanship.
It is also enlightening to look beyond the elements of design and understand the full significance of quilts and quilting. In a modern world obsessed with consumption, it feels good to produce a work of one’s own, something that only you can make in the way you made it—whether that’s a ceramic bowl, a piece of furniture, an iron hearth fender, a woven basket, or a quilt. Little wonder that Americans continue to create and treasure these “soft touches” in a hard, high-tech society. Whether the final products turn out to be masterpieces or just meaningful attempts at one, they are American icons that please the eye and satisfy the soul.
2Marshall Fishwick, “Icons of America”, in Icons of America, ed. Ray B. Browne and Marshall Fishwick (Popular Press, 1978).
3David Gerald Orr, “The Icon in the Time Tunnel”, pp. 13–23.
4”Smithsonian Institution and the American Quilt Defense Fund Sign Agreement”, Smithsonian Institution News, March 22, 1993. The five members of the AQDF were Linda Claussen, Rebecca H. Harriss, Eva Earle Kent, Barbara Jean Lester and Merikay Waldvogel.
5Proceedings of this symposium, held March 18–19, 1995, were published and sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, with support from the American Quilt Defense Fund under the title What’s American about American Quilts: A Research Forum on Regional Characteristics.
6Eliza Calvert Hall, Aunt Jane of Kentucky (Little, Brown, and Company, 1907; reprint of 1898 edition), p. 78.
7The Quilting in America 2010 study, presented by Quilters Newsletter in cooperation with the International Quilt Market & Festival, divisions of Quilts, Inc., reports that the “estimated total dollar value of the quilting industry stands at $3.58 billion.”