For three centuries, American women have quilted in formal and informal groups. Elizabeth Huntington wrote in her 1802 diary, “I have a quilt or two to piece and I want your help extremely, it is a dull business for me alone.”1 Quiltmakers find that quilting with others serves a variety of purposes from speeding up a tedious process to providing some economic security.
Examples abound of quilts made by groups. Evidence exists of church-based sewing circles in the early 19th century as well as the more commonly known quilting parties. Relief organizations, and more recently, independently formed groups for specific causes have engaged in quiltmaking. Families, neighbors, and church women regularly come together to make quilts to commemorate important people or events.
During the 20th century, quiltmakers formed groups in order to establish a sense of identity as well as for mutual support and education. Particularly during the last half of the century when fewer mothers and grandmothers passed on the tradition of quiltmaking to their daughters, quiltmakers established guilds and online communities as a way to further the tradition. Quilt guilds have played an important role transmitting the tradition of quiltmaking, supporting the growing ranks of teachers and lecturers, and affirming a traditional female identity.
Quiltmaking cooperatives—organizations helping quilters in economic need to support their families—surfaced as early as the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. Cooperatives either taught women how to quilt or taught them how to hone the skills they already had in order to sell their quilts to the public. Although the relationship of these quilters to their patrons has caused some to critique cooperatives’ structure, they have played a significant role in maintaining quiltmaking traditions and bringing attention to groups of folk artists.
Throughout American history, collaborative quilting has sped up the process, strengthened community and familial relationships, provided social and educational opportunities, and sometimes provided economic opportunity.
1. Quoted in Lynne Zacek Bassett, “’A Dull Business Alone’: Cooperative Quilting in New England, 1750-1850,” in Textiles in New England II: Four Centuries of Material Life, ed. Peter Benes (Boston, MA: Boston University, 1999), 27.