When you think about American collectibles and antiques, cars, rock-n-roll memorabilia, presidential campaign paraphernalia, and Civil War relics are a few things that come to mind. Quilts, however, especially patchwork ones, are an overlooked category, but one that has become recognized as a distinctly and uniquely American form of art.
Throughout American history, women were in charge of churning out these fabric masterpieces. In fact, this beloved image of an American woman and her trusty sewing needle is best immortalized by Betsy Ross, the seamstress (supposedly) behind the nation’s first flag. This story, of Betsy Ross diligently stitching away a plethora of white stars along with red and white stripes, has achieved an almost mythological status in the founding of America. This story demonstrates the association of women’s needlework as a symbolic badge of patriotism. Quilting has been deeply woven into the US’s tapestry – both culturally and socially. Several textiles and American history scholars even suggest that quilts can piece together a fabric biography of the United States.
(Right: G. Liebscher, ‘Betsy Ross Sewing Flag’ Public Domain Image)
American Pioneers Settling The Great Frontiers: 1
There is no better category to begin with than with one of the most famous American figures: the pioneers – the resourceful, optimistic, and adventurous men, women and children who set out West in their covered-wagon caravans, stuffed with furniture, kitchen supplies, clothing, and…quilts! Lots of quilts, actually, as “travel guides suggested that each family should bring enough bedding so that each man, woman, and child would have 2-3 blankets or quilts” 2
From the 1830s-1870s, thousands of pioneers took up the reigns and headed west, settling in places like the Southwest, California, the Rockies, the Great Plains, and even Oregon.
As Americans embarked on their expeditions westward, quilts were not only an essential and practical item but also a beloved memento from home.
One popular quilt for the soon-to-be pioneer woman and her family was the “Friendship” or “Album” quilt, which would have been made by the wife’s group of friends or her circle
of sewing buddies. 3 Resembling an “alphabet” quilt, different images (for an “album”) or repeating images (for a “friendship”) would occupy the alphabet’s letter “spaces.” The images – such as roses, stars, animals, and boats – symbolized a unique characteristic or event for the quilt’s recipient. These types of quilts mimic a photo-album (hence, the name “Album” quilts).
Other popular pioneer-preferred patchwork appliques included motifs which alluded to different parts of their journey:
- “Bear’s Paw” = four jagged, or “sawtooth” pieces arranged around a small square, or as Stella Rubin describes, “pointed triangles clawing off the main square.” 4 Other animals’ tracks included those of the goose or turkey.
- “Log Cabin” = “Logs” (tiny rectangles) arranged around a center red square (symbolizing a chimney, hearth, or house). Many “Log Cabin” quilts also employed a two-time color scheme of light and dark shades to symbolize night and day.
- “Pinwheel” – symbolized wheels and movement.
- “Stars” = direction; guiding light; faith for a safe journey.
When Quilts Went to War:
Quilts have also played a significant role throughout US military history. Women made thousands of quilts as contributions to war-time efforts. Red, white, and blue; stars and stripes, red crosses, and other patriotic symbols are distinctive of these wartime quilts. 5
Similar to the blanket care packages sent to US soldiers today, during the Civil War, World War I, and World War II, women feverishly stitched quilts to send to the soldiers on the frontlines, as well as in hospitals, as comfort blankets – to provide not only a warm, cozy covering, but also as a token of gratitude and support from the homefront.
Quilts were also an important fund-raising tool. In addition to “comfort quilts,” women also made quilts specifically as an auction item to sell at charities and raffles in order to raise money for the war efforts, military supplies, and medical supplies. Private companies and organizations also sponsored patriotic quilting contests.6 During the Civil War, Southern women worked on what came to be known as “gunboat quilts” as they created these quilts to fundraise money specifically for gunboats, artillery desperately needed by the Confederate army. The North also utilized quilting to raise war-time relief funds; over 250,000 quilts were made for Union soldiers.
For World War I, Preisdent Woodrow Wilson encouraged every American to contribute what they could to the war efforts. The American Red Cross charity became one of the “quilting leaders.” According to the International Quilt Study Center & Museum, “In addition to knitting millions of socks and sweaters for World War I soldiers, the American Red Cross encouraged its volunteers to ‘do your bit’ and make quilts and ‘save the blankets for our boys over there.'” 7
It has also been discovered that men quilted during their time at war. A recent museum exhibition called “War and Pieced: The Annette Gero Collection of Quilts From Military Fabrics,” reveals a treasure trove of, literally, “man”-made quilts, from as far back as the Prussian Wars! Jason Daley, (interestingly, and, perhaps, surprisingly) divulges that the collection “include[s] examples from the Napoleonic Wars, Prussian conflicts as well as British wars in South Africa and India. The quilts used to be known as ‘convalescent quilts,’ since it was believed they were primarily made by soldiers recovering from injuries in hospitals, but recent research indicates that the best examples were likely made by bored soldiers in the field looking for a way to pass the time and keep out of trouble or by men in prisoner-of-war camps.” 8
Flowers and Feedsacks: Explosion of Color in Great Depression/1930s: 9
To provide some brightness during the gloom and frugality of the Great Depression, quilts stitched in this time-period often have a lighthearted, colorful, and uplifting personality. Common ingredients include flowers, nursery rhyme characters, pastels and playful colors. According to quilt historian Judy Anne Breneman, “Quilting was one activity that a woman could do to fulfill her desire to be creative while still making something practical for her family.” 10
These quilts are also very “patchwork-y.” By that I mean, the quilts incorporated a variety of fabric patterns and colors. Money was sparse, and so women had to be very creative with finding fabrics for their quilts. Old feed sacks (bags used to hold food items) provided an excellent and economical solution, as they were constructed from a hodgepodge of patterned cloth: polka-dots, stripes, fruits, plaid, checkerboard, even a Gone With the Wind motif print! These leftover bits were recycled into patchwork pieces for the following patterns: flower petal pieces, apron shapes, and doggie cardigans!
“Dresden Plate” = Dresden, Germany is famous for its finely decorated porcelain. One famous item adopted by the American quilter was the Dresden plate, (plates painted with beautiful and elaborate floral, fruit, or ivy patterns). As a quilting pattern, the “Dresden Plate” contains a center circle “bud” from which several wedge-shaped “petals” radiate in a fan-like pattern. The tips of the petals can be smooth curves (forming a scalloped flower shape), pointed, or a straight edge (so that the petals form a seamless circle, or rather, “plate” shape).
“Scottie Dog” = The quilt featuring the iconic applique of a little cardigan-clad Scottie is thought to have been inspired by (or, more likely, reattributed to) a president’s pooch! 11 That’s right – Franklin Roosevelt had one of the most charming and popular of all presidential pets: his black Scottish terrier Fala! This adorable and frisky pup was a bright light during Roosevelts’s presidency during the Great Depression. Fala was so well-loved by the American public, “that he received thousands of letters from people. He even needed to have a secretary appointed to him to answer his mail.” 12
“Grandmother’s Flower Garden” = hexagons in concentric patterns which look like floating honeycombs.
“Sunbonnet Sue and Overall Sam/Bill” = Appliques of tiny tykes – either Sue wearing her big sunbonnet and dress/apron or Sam/Bill adorned in his overalls – were popular quilts for children at this time. The fabric from feed sacks became the sunbonnet, apron, or overall piece.
Appraisal value really depends on pattern complexity, stitching quality, and authenticity. Values range from a few hundred to a few thousand, potentially more for an extremely rare example. As you can probably imagine, war-time quilts are very rare and therefore valued at much higher prices.
Care Tips for quilts include:
- a once yearly airing-out,
- light vacuuming with a fine, mesh screen between the quilt and the nozzle (to protect quilt), and
- keeping away from sunlight (which deteriorates fabric rapidly).
- Rubin, Stella. Miller’s Treasure or Not: How to Compare and Value American Quilts, Octopus Publishing Group: London, 2001. Refer to pages for information on the following patterns: “Friendship Quilts” (50-51); “Album Quilts” (52-53); “Log Cabin Quilts” (108-111); and “Bear’s Paw Quilts” (134-135).
- “Quilt Discovery Experience,” created by the Homestead National
Monument of America (Beatrice, Nebraska) for the National Park Service. Online access: https://www.nps.gov/home/planyourvisit/quilt-discovery-experience.htm. Article provides list of additional sources.
- Kiracofe, Roderick. The American Quilt: A History of Cloth and Comfort 1750-1950, Clarkson Potter Publishers, New York: 1993. Refer to pages 80-90.
- Rubin, Stella. Miller’s Treasure or Not: How to Compare and Value American Quilts, Octopus Publishing Group: London, 2001. Refer to pages for information on “Bear’s Paw Quilts” (134-135).
- Rubin, Stella. Miller’s Treasure or Not: How to Compare and Value American Quilts, Octopus Publishing Group: London, 2001. Refer to pages for information on the following patterns: “Patriotic Quilts” (66-67) and “Fundraising Quilts” (68-69).
- Pershing, Linda. The Ribbon Around The Pentagon: Peace by Piecemakers, The University of Tennessee Press: Knoxville, TN, 1996. See page 63.
- “The American Story,” World Quilts. International Quilt Study Center & Museum, [online]: http://worldquilts.quiltstudy.org/americanstory/node/5974.
- Daley, Jason. “The Centuries-Old Tradition of Military Quilting is Getting Its First Exhibition in the U.S.,” Published August 10, 2017, on smithsonian.com. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/quilts-made-soldiers-go-display-first-time-180964215/.
- Rubin, Stella. Miller’s Treasure or Not: How to Compare and Value American Quilts, Octopus Publishing Group: London, 2001. Refer to pages 159-161 for information on the following patterns: “Dresden Plate,” “Grandmother’s Flower Garden,” and “Sunbonnet Sue and Overall Sam/Bill;” also “Alphabet Quilts” (152-153.
- Breneman, Judy Anne. “America’s Quilting History – Depression Era Quilts: Cheer in Fabric and Color,” Womenfolk: The Art of Quilting (website). Published 2001. http://www.womenfolk.com/quilting_history/depressionera.htm.
- Kiracofe, Roderick. The American Quilt: A History of Cloth and Comfort 1750-1950, Clarkson Potter Publishers, New York: 1993. Refer to page 220.
- “Fala Biography,” Presidential Pet Museum, (Fala’s biography courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum). July 22, 2013. http://ww.presidentialpetmuseum.com/pets/fala/,