Don’t Believe These Lies About Quilts

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!)

Patchwork quilt with flowers and 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.

Quilt with a diamond pattern on a white background and a border of smaller diamonds

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.

Quilt with irregular rectangles in black, white, red, and tan
Quilt by Mary Lee Bendoplh.

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.

Two African-American women holding up an intricate broken star pattern quilt
Francine Sykes (left), Louisiana, with her Broken Star quilt.

One really awesome example of early black American quilting is this Bible quilt made by Harriet Powers in 1898.

quilt with 15 squares depicting scenes from the Bible

Plenty of white women, particularly in the southern U.S., have made quilts using strip-piecing and improvisational techniques.

quilt with irregular multi-colored rectangles on a black and white striped background
Quilt by Beatrice Davis Franks, of Columbus, Mississippi.

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.

Amish woman seated at a hand-operated sewing machine, with quilts on the wall behind her and the surface next to her

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.

By Bryn Donovan

Romance writer, poet, quilter, and dog cuddler.

16 replies on “Don’t Believe These Lies About Quilts”

A good example of African-American needlework would be the counterpanes of Achsah Goodwin Wilkins. Although Wilkins was an affluent white woman, the needlework was done by African-American women. I discovered one of the counterpanes a couple years ago, and the needlework was truly exquisite. I donated the piece to the DAR Museum in Washington, DC, recently, and it will be on display for 11 months beginning in October, 2014. Also blogged about the piece at “Why Quilts Matter: History, Art & Politics” –

I am a 5th generation quilter and I also teach quilting to beginners. It may be true about quilts not being perfect because only God does perfect.. But if you really want to look nothing is perfect. My grandmother told me many times no one is perfect least of all us. I am also a crazy quilter and have used cigar silks.. Something that was not said in this is girls were taught to sew to show they are fit to be a good wife… also quilts were made in bright colors when the Queen of England’s husband died and everyone was in morning and this was a way to have color in their lives.. my great-grandmother had a quilt rack that was in her living room that was on pulleys that she could pull it up to the ceiling when she was no longer using it. I have seen quilts that say they are made like old quilts and it has the blocks that are off center and fray’ed….. I am sorry the women in my family would be rolling in their graves to think anyone would think they would put something out like that!!

Have to run I read this and just had to comment on it.. you all have a wonderful day!
(not sure if it will come in but I am putting one of the last quilts I made..)

Lovely but hate to differ about only ladies of leisure had time to quilt. All across the west and through the midwest of the U.S. farmer’s wives, and rancher’s wives made quilts during the cold winter months when they could not be outdoors. They made quilts from scraps of wool and tied them at the corners. Sewed them by hand and every female child learned to sew and quilt. Yes, the fancy quilts took a long time, but they were done by “quilting bees” when the neighbor ladies all got together while the harvest was taking place. The women didn’t go to the office at 9 am and come home at 5 pm and run their kids to the baseball game practice or run to the mall or supermarket. Bedding like clothing were part of the daily routine as was laundry, cooking and seasonal cleaning, some things that we lack in today’s society. signed: growing up in the country

I kind of remember reading somewhere that it was a common promotion in the Victorian era to include a silk scrap in cigar boxes for the lady of the house to use in a quilt.

I also remember watching an interview with a venerable old quilter in which she disscused her grandmother thinking she was silly for cutting up a perfectly good large piece of fabric for patchwork. I get the general impresion that those who were fussed about using all the fabric were not hugely fused about what the finished quilt looked like or interested in making extra work for themselves.

Pretty sure I stumbled across it while looking up information on Victorian crazy quilts. And in going back to find this information, it looks like they were using the silk lining of the cigar box (a bit like feed sack fabric I guess?) or else the cigar bands. This is the danger of accumulating too much trivia knowledge. My brain occasionally mixes and matches with facts.

This was lovely. Growing up, me and my sister both had a quilt our mother made which used patches from some of her favourite dresses that had worn out, remnants etc, later we used it for our dolls. I think I still have some of the different patterns and textures committed to memory. Have you read Alias Grace, by Margaret Attwood? Each of the chapters is named after a New England quilt pattern and they’re sort of used to underscore part of the story or tone of that chapter, its pretty interesting and I wonder if there’s any deeper layers or research more experienced quilters might pick up on.

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