This information is copyrighted. It is based on and excerpted from a Ph.D. dissertation written by Drunell Levinson, and titled "A Descriptive Study of Art at the Margins: The work of Jennifer Kotter, Ray Materson and Bonnie Peterson," © 2001, UMI Publications. Reproduction of this material in any part and in any form is prohibited without the express written consent of the author.

The History of Traditional Quilts

According to Caroline Seebohm (Architectural Digest, 1986), the word "quilt" comes from the Latin culcita, meaning a stuffed sack. Traditional quilts have a top, back and filler. Quilting is the stitching of two pieces of material together with padding in between, but not all quilts carry a quilting design stitch. Quilts may also be tied together with small lengths of yarn every few inches. In some instances, the ties are time-saving devices, but in others they serve as decoration.

As Judith Reiter Weissman and Wendy Lavitt note (Labors of Love, 1987), quilting is an ancient useful, decorative craft that can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians as far as 3400 BC. Documentation of quilted clothing is found throughout the Middle Ages in Europe and Asia, and quilted bedcovers were mentioned as part of household goods in British writings as early as the thirteenth century. These first bits of quilting were believed to be articles of clothing (like jackets or undershirts), probably used as covers over or under heavy medieval armor. The theory according to Weissman and Lavitt is that, worn either way, they helped to protect the wearer and to absorb the shock of the weapons’ blows. At least as early as the seventeenth century, the textile trades in England included quilt making. Quilt makers, like embroidery makers, were members of the textile trade, and the work was done by both men and women.

The quilt making craft was passed down in families and communities through generations, and as part of the custom, patterns were exchanged among friends. Three traditional forms of bed quilts evolved that still exist today: whole-cloth, pieced or patchwork, and appliqué. Needlework was a highly valued handicraft, and women were taught to sew at a very young age. As Barbara Brackman notes (Clues in the Calico, 1989), such skills made upper class girls marriageable and were considered part of their education, because an academic education was not considered important for them. If a quilt turned out to be particularly good or showed off unusual or exceptional needlework skills, it was called a "best" quilt and was put on the guest bed, where the feminine skills could be assessed and admired. According to Jonathan Holstein (Abstract Design, 1971), in many parts of the country well into the nineteenth century, girls were expected to have made twelve "everyday" and one "best" quilt by the time they married.

Barbara Brackman (Clues in the Calico, 1989) documents that colonists in America kept warm with blankets, bed rugs, coverlets, spreads and quilts and notes that quilts before 1800 were rare and expensive, because fabric was scarce and the average person had few changes of clothes. It took the development of factory-produced cotton, and later of woolens and silks, to provide fabric cheap enough for the poor and the growing middle class to afford the luxury of leftover scraps for quilts from their wardrobe fabric.

As Patsy and Myron Orlofsky note (Quilts in America, 1992), during the Industrial Revolution (1820-1850), several inventions changed what had been defined as "woman's work." The sewing machine, patented in 1846, was commonplace by the end of this era, freeing women from the tedium of constructing clothing by hand. About the same time, the development of aniline dyes in the mid-nineteenth century brought about a greatly expanded range of colors in cotton and wool. Improvements in roller printing and dye chemistry, and the increasing efficiency of cotton processing and weaving, made a greater variety of materials available at lower costs. Brackman (Clues in the Calico, 1989) adds that middle-class quilt makers were thus able to incorporate new fabrics into their new styles; cheaper fabrics gave women the option of controlling color schemes with a wider choice of fabric. Quilt makers began to buy fabric especially for quilts.

Karal Ann Marling (The Arts and the American Home, 1994) believes that when mass production of quilts began, the link between artistic embellishment and physical need was fractured. As she points out, homemakers had the advantage of numerous gadgets to lighten work, and periodicals kept them informed of changing styles. According to Gateley (The Magazine Antiques, 1987), by the second half of the nineteenth century, some American women had leisure time to spend on purely decorative pursuits. The amount of time that a woman spent on such pursuits was an indication of the family's social and economic status. Beverly Gordon (The Arts and the American Home, 1994) attributes the heightened awareness of the artistic possibilities of needlework as a direct cause of handwork becoming freer, and the style known as "art needlework" or "artistic embroidery," which originated in England, flourishing. It was not long before quilt makers added embroidery and such trimmings as ribbons, buttons and beads.

Brackman (Clues in the Calico, 1989) believes that any analysis of the development of the quilt into such an important part of women's lives requires consideration also of the significance of quilting groups, often referred to as "quilting bees." As she notes, in 1859, a group of this kind was referred to in the Merriam Webster dictionary as a "quilting," and in the same dictionary a "bee" was identified as "an assembly of ladies to sew for the poor." Brackman also points out that quilting bees were as much social as utilitarian events, as the demands of nineteenth century rural life and the distance between homes made a day out a rare occasion. The all-day quilting bee was a special event occurring only occasionally. It was an antidote to rural isolation, when women could get together and share news, recipes and patterns. Quilting parties offered diversion for the young and old, providing community socializing, dating and matchmaking.

By the end of the nineteenth century, more people were living in towns and cities, with wider social contacts. It was also more acceptable for women to meet outside the house. American life grew more sophisticated, and social opportunities expanded for both the young and old. Group quilting remained important in the lives of women in the post-Civil War decades, but men and refreshments at quilting events eventually disappeared, and quilting bees became exclusively part of the female domain. Brackman believes that quilts were no longer important as expressions of a young woman's artistic and needlework skills; they were seen rather as "functional bedding for the rural middle and lower classes." She also points out that machine sewing and typing, cheap fabrics and an abundance of scraps, from both home and factory clothing production, made late nineteenth century patchwork quilts and comforters an economical alternative to blankets.

By the 1920s, the technical superiority of many products of mass culture was indisputable. Quilts began to be mass produced in factories and were not seen as work for the modern woman. There was no longer a need to make functional items, and few women desired to spend their leisure with such time-consuming pursuits as sewing and embroidery. As Kennneth L. Ames points out in the introduction (The Arts and the American Home, 1994), "[Technology] turned a nation of doers (or at least ‘tryers’) into a nation of passive recipients of cultural production. Home crafts went into a decline and did not recover until the Depression made them once again necessary." During the Depression, there was little money to buy the mere necessities of life — much less the modern, convenient, mass-produced gadgets. Quilts continued to serve as bedding, hobby, and sustenance for poor rural families made even poorer by the Depression.

Around the 1930s, the economic conditions, combined with the low cost of fabric, created a middle-class trend for quilting. Needlework periodicals and popular magazine columns promoted the interior decorative aspects of sewing and quilts as part of a Colonial decorative look. Bets Ramsey (Southern Quilts, 1995) points out that hints and quilting patterns were published advising women how a "modern" city woman could decorate her home in this newest style, using handmade items. Patterns and instructions were also provided for rugs, curtains, pillows, dresses, and scarves to complement the quilt. Differences in domestic practices were a matter of economics. According to Cuesta Benberry (Quilter's Newsletter Magazine, 1987), this is when the quilting competition, introduced in 1932, began to play an important role in the story of quilt making and the popularity of quilts.

The question of why women became competitive in their quilt making has no definitive answer. As Brackman points out ( Clues in the Calico, 1989), early written records of exhibitions, both prize lists and newspaper accounts, are vague. Although there is much oral history about twentieth-century fair winners, there are few nineteenth-century references. Brackman believes that while we can speculate that women were enticed by cash and prizes, some quilt makers competed mostly to win a simple ribbon or to have their patterns published. Others competed just to have their quilts exhibited for others to see. This suggests that quilts warranted recognition and they were an important component of society.

Brackman documents the concept of the quilting competitions as having grown out of the agricultural fairs held in the early 1800s, which sought to inspire American independence in textile production. She goes on to point out that the fair established itself as a judged, public display of exhibits with premiums awarded to winners. Prizes seemed to attract women, and a fair's success was measured by how many women attended. To encourage more women to attend the fair, premiums were increased in size and type. By 1839, a prize was offered for a bed quilt. Brackman concludes that the quilting event proved so popular that quilts became a standard component in local and state fairs.

Although there were national competitions for individual blocks in the 1920s, the first nationwide competition for completed quilts did not take place until 1932, almost a century later, at Storrowton Village in Springfield, Massachusetts. Benberry (Quilter's Newsletter Magazine, 1987) documents that more than six hundred quilts competed for two $50 first prizes and a silver trophy, in both the antique division and the modern division. Donna Wilder (American Glorious Quilts, 1987) credits the success of the first nationwide competition as making national competitions lucrative for merchandisers. She notes that Sears, Roebuck and Company, for example, sponsored a competition in connection with the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. As Brackman notes in a journal article (Quilter's Journal, 1985), this was the first competition to take place at an exposition and the second nationwide competition ever held. According to this article, quilt makers were asked to submit traditional quilts, as well as quilts commemorating the theme of the fair, "A Century of Progress." A total of $7,500 in prizes and cash was advertised. The grand prize was $1,000, and an additional $200 bonus was offered if the winning quilt was an original design commemorating the theme of the fair. At the time $1,200 was more than twice the average annual family income.

Joyce Gross's article (Quilter's Journal, 1980) documents a competition in August, 1940, when the New York World's Fair sponsored a quilt contest entitled "America Through the Needle's Eye." According to Gross, the first prize award was $725. Preliminary contests were held by department stores in the East and Mid-West, and winners were entered as finalists in the national competition. Quilt contests sponsored by department stores, newspapers and magazines inspired a whole generation of quilt makers to become competitive in their quilt making. With the onset of World War II, however, many women worked in factories, and fewer had the time or the desire to quilt — even for a prize.


Benberry, Cuesta. "Storrowton Village." Quilters Newsletter Magazine (September 1987): [36-41].

Brackman, Barbara. Clues in the Calico: A Guide to Identifying and Dating Antique Quilts. [McLean, VA]: EPM Publications, Inc., 1989.
  • "The Great Chicago Quilting Bee of 1933." Quilters' Journal. (July 1985).

  • "Quilts at Chicago's World's Fairs." Uncoverings: The 1981 Research Papers of the American Quilt Study Group. Edited by Sally Garoutte. Vol. 2. Mill Valley, CA: American Quilt Study Group, 1982.
Gately, Rosemary Connolly. "Crazy Quilts in the Collection of the Maryland Historical Society." The Magazine Antiques. (September 1988): 558-573.

Gordon, Beverly. "Cozy, Charming and Artistic: Stitching Together the American Home." In The Arts and the American Home, 1890-1930. Jessica H. Foy, and Karal Ann Marling, Eds. Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press, 1994.

Gross, Joyce. "1940 World's Fair Quilt Contest." Quilters' Journal (Summer 1980): n.p.]

Holstein, Jonathan. Abstract Design in American Quilts: A biography of an Exhibition. An Exhibition Catalogue. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1971.

Marling, Karal Ann. "From the Quilt." In The Arts and the American Home: 1890-1930. Jessica H. Foy and Karal Ann Marling, Eds. Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press, 1994.

Orlofsky, Patsy and Myron. Quilts in America. New York: Abbeville Press, 1992.

Ramsey, Bets and Gail Andrews Treschsel. Southern Quilts: A New View. McLean, VA: EPM Publications, 1995.

Rumford, Beatrix. "Memorial Watercolors." The Magazine Antiques. (October 1973): 688.

Schorsch, Anita. Mourning Becomes America. Clinton, NJ: The Main Street Press, 1976.

Seebohm, Caroline. "Antiques: Fanciful Coverups, A Patchwork of English & American Chintz Quilts." Architectural Digest. (June 1986): 186-191.

Weissman, Judith Reiter, and Wendy Lavitt. Labors of Love: America's Textiles and Needlework, 1650-1930. New York: Wings Books, 1987.

Wilder, Donna. "Quilts At An Exhibition." In America's Glorious Quilts. Dennis Duke and Deborah Harding, Eds. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987.

This information is copyrighted. It is based on and excerpted from a Ph.D. dissertation written by Drunell Levinson, and titled "A Descriptive Study of Art at the Margins: The work of Jennifer Kotter, Ray Materson and Bonnie Peterson," © 2001, UMI Publications. Reproduction of this material in any part and in any form is prohibited without the express written consent of the author.

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