When people today think about quilts, they often think about patchwork bedcovers in their grandmothers’ homes, quilting out of necessity during the Great Depression, or possibly a gift given to them on a special occasion. Quilts’ role as providers of warmth, decoration in the home, or commemoration of a special occasion, however, can go beyond the quiltmaker’s immediate family and friends.
Throughout American history, quiltmakers have used quilts’ comforting and unobtrusive qualities to communicate political and social messages. Sometimes that message is very subtle—think making quilts for donation to children’s hospitals or making sleeping bags for the homeless. At other times, quiltmakers clearly inscribe quilts with their political views, social affiliations, or calls to action.
During the 19th century, women who did not have the right to vote or felt confined to the domestic sphere found socially acceptable ways to convey their beliefs. They built charitable organizations and participated in causes such as abolition and temperance. Their participation in these arenas built upon women’s role as society’s moral compass rooted in the home. Inscriptions, imagery, and fabrics found in quilts included patriotic symbols, commemoration of war heroes, and political statements.
During the 20th century, quiltmakers continued to show awareness of contemporary political and social issues. In contrast to 19th-century activists, second-and third-wave feminists did not frame their roles within the domestic moral compass model tied to raising good citizens. Rather, they have framed their activism in terms of equality and global citizenship. Their activism calls attention to social issues ranging from homelessness and poverty to environmentalism and unfair labor practices in the U.S. and abroad.
The one thing that has remained the same since the 19th century is the perception of crafts as women’s work making them seem less abrasive, easier to ignore, and apolitical. Women have proven these assumptions to be incorrect, leaving behind over two centuries worth of material documentation of their activism.