I’m a quilter, and there are a few stories going around about quilts that just aren’t true. I want to clear those up for you!
1. Patchwork quilts began as a way for poor American colonial women to use up every bit of spare fabric.
Eh, not so much. Plenty of people have made quilts from leftover fabric, and there are fantastic examples of that, old and new. But quilting is extremely time-consuming, and the first European women in the U.S., for the most part, didn’t have that kind of time.
One of the earliest examples of patchwork quilting is from Wiltshire in the U.K. It’s made up mostly of leftover silks from good dresses, so while it’s a good example of upcycling, it’s almost certainly the work of a lady of leisure. (Isn’t it gorgeous? Look at those swans!)
Here’s another pretty famous quilt: made by Jane Austen in the early nineteenth century! The chintz patterned fabrics were almost certainly bought specifically for the project. In an 1811 letter, Austen reminded her sister to get her more material for a quilt.
A lot of our early examples of patchwork were created by reasonably well-to-do urban women with plenty of time on their hands.
2. African-American quilts are irregular and jazzy; white people’s quilts are neat and orderly.
This misconception probably comes from the popularity of the amazing Gees Bend quilts, which all share a similar improvisational aesthetic.
However, this oversimplifies the history of quilting and sells everyone’s heritage short. Black Americans have always made lots of quilts in intricate, meticulous styles as well.
One really awesome example of early black American quilting is this Bible quilt made by Harriet Powers in 1898.
Plenty of white women, particularly in the southern U.S., have made quilts using strip-piecing and improvisational techniques.
3. People used quilts as secret signs and signals for the Underground Railroad.
This myth dates back to around 1995, with the publication of a children’s book called Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, a work of fiction. It really took hold in 1999, with the publication of a book called Hidden in Plain View. There’s no evidence quilts were ever used in this way, and the book has been debunked.
4. Amish women always make a mistake in their quilts on purpose, because only God is perfect.
Nope. Many Amish quilters have said this is bullshit, though they probably said it in a more polite way. People tell this same story about Persian and Navajo rugs, and I’ve found one example of a Navajo weaver attesting to this. The truth is, it’s almost impossible to make a quilt without any mistakes. Lots of quilts have one block of a different color because the quilter ran out of one fabric, or a reversed block because the quilter sewed it in wrong and didn’t notice until the piece was complete. Or she did notice and thought, “Eh, fuck it.” Personally, I find that kind of quirk more endearing than the idea of a deliberate error.
5. Amish quilters don’t use sewing machines.
Yeah, they do. Amish quilters piece together quilts using treadle sewing machines and then hand-quilt them. Even machine-piecing a quilt is a time-consuming job, and I’m guessing it takes even more time with a people-powered machine.
I could probably go on, but I’m actually late getting this article in because I was working all weekend on a quilt to give a niece at Thanksgiving. No lie.