The Smithsonian Quilt Controversy

One outgrowth of the late 20th-century quilt revival was a booming trade in antique quilts and a subsequent consumer market for new quilts. As prices rose for both antique quilts and for new quilts made by American quiltmakers in cottage industries, textile manufacturers identified a new potential market: quilts based on historic American patterns, with low price points due to Chinese factory production. 

In the late 1980s and early 1990s these businesses flourished; American consumers bought millions of foreign factory-made quilts from mail order catalogues and department stores.  The American Folk Art Museum licensed some of its historic quilts, including an iconic Amish design, to be made overseas. And most controversially, the Smithsonian Institution contracted with the largest offshore manufacturer of quilts to reproduce several of its most-loved quilts, including the Harriet Powers Bible Quilt and one featuring the Great Seal of the United States.

Many consumers loved the ability to buy what they understood as traditional American quilts in “authentic” designs for several hundred dollars, rather than for thousands. But despite the booming sales for these reproduction quilts, many quilt enthusiasts protested the Smithsonian’s decision, in part, because they worried these offshore reproductions would devalue all American quilts. They also expressed concern that future generations may not identify these quilts as Chinese factory-made knock-offs, but mistake them for authentic, historic American quilts.

A key aspect of the protest was the Chinese ethnicity of the workers hand stitching these so-called American quilts. As Ohio Congressman Ralph Regula asked: “How can the Chinese reproduce an American quilt? The answer is they cannot and should not.”1

Eventually, the lobbying efforts of quilt enthusiasts who cancelled Smithsonian memberships, picketed on the National Mall, signed petitions, and testified in Congress forced the Smithsonian to cancel its contract. The Smithsonian agreed to contract with two domestic cooperativesCabin Creek Quilters in Appalachia and Missouri Breaks in the Lakota Sioux reservationto produce quilts for the consumer market. The Smithsonian also agreed to host more public programming centered on its quilt collection, including the research forum, “What’s American about American Quilts?” 


1. Ralph Regula to Robert McCormick Adams, March 19, 1992, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Textiles Archives.