When Life magazine published a 1972 article on the growing popularity of quilts and quiltmaking, it highlighted several concurrent trends that had led to what it described as a “Craze for Quilts.”
The article showcased quilts made by the Freedom Quilting Bee and Mountain Artisans, part of a new generation of quilt cooperatives spurred by volunteers in Appalachia and civil rights workers in the Deep South who wanted to alleviate poverty.
The article also pictured quilts that hung like paintings at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 1971 exhibit, Abstract Design in American Quilts. And it described a “sew-in” involving 70 women who congregated with pets, babies, and food to stitch quilts with beads, tie-dyed blocks, and other countercultural touches.
An image of a 19th-century silk Tumbling Blocks quilt with 359 signatures from notables including “statesmen, scientists, authors, generals, and churchmen,” as well as Abraham Lincoln highlighted the importance of quilts within history.1
Nostalgic views of history were front and center in 1970s American culture, this time due to the upcoming Bicentennial. Also fueling the craze for quilts was a new feminist reclamation of historic quilts as bearers of women’s history. Feminist artists began to embrace needlework in their work, drawing inspiration from old quilts.
As this quilt revival continued unabated into subsequent decades, it branched out from nostalgic quilting bees to large scale quilt shows. Aspiring quiltmakers with a limited selection of fabric and tools in the 1970s had a whole industry devoted to them by the 1980s. Quilt collectors bought antique, Amish, and art quilts from small town and Madison Avenue dealers alike. Volunteers initiated state quilt documentation projects, encouraging quilt owners to dig into chests and attics to rediscover and document forgotten quilts.
The craze for quilts created a multifaceted quilt industry worth billions of dollars by the 21st century. Quiltmakers and quilt lovers are consumers, and now thanks to the businesses catering to them, they have plenty to buy.
1. “Craze for Quilts.” Life, May 5, 1972.