One bit of advice about identifying Mennonite quilts goes like this:
Q: How do you know if a quilt is Mennonite?
A: Ask the maker what her religion is.
This is good advice for determining the identity of any quiltmaker. Today, more Americans make quilts than ever before. 21 million Americans quilt; according to the 2014 Quilting in America survey, today’s average dedicated quiltmaker is female, 64 years old, well educated, and affluent.
Contemporary statistics say little about the great diversity of the individuals who have made quilts during the past several centuries, although the demographics of today’s typical American quiltmaker characterize many historical quiltmakers as well, despite romantic beliefs that quilts are a product of thrift and poverty. Men also quilt, as do African Americans. Children, teenagers, Native Americans, enslaved individuals, poor people, and immigrants to the United States have made quilts.
Do quilts reflect their makers’ ethnic, racial, gender, or class identity?
Sometimes. For example, Native Americans have frequently made quilts featuring stars, a symbol linked to longstanding beliefs and rituals. Some scholars have surmised that African Americans have made quilts with an improvisational style linked to traditional African culture. Other quiltmakers have explicitly addressed issues such as feminism and racism in their quilts.
Just as frequently, quilts reflect individual preferences. There may not be anything distinct about a quilt made by a Latina, Scots-Irish, working class, male, or Presbyterian maker. Each quiltmaker makes individualized decisions about how to put a quilt together.
Too often, we know nothing about who made a quilt. The majority of quilts in the IQSCM collection have unknown makers. Yet we should not consider these quilts as “anonymous” just because they are not signed. The families and communities from which they came no doubt celebrated the skill and artistry of quiltmakers. And in diverse ways, the quilts reflected their makers’ identity.