In the modern world, textiles are expendables; fashions change over the course of months rather than years or decades. Prior to the abundance created by the Industrial Revolution, textile objects—clothing, bedding, window treatments—were recorded in estate inventories, part of dowries and inheritances, restyled and redesigned for new fashions, passed from master to servant, and sold on second-hand markets. During colonial and early America, quilts, along with other textiles, were high-style accoutrements for the home, rather than simple utilitarian bedspreads.
Through the 1820s, most textiles were imports. The British government had disallowed the colonies to produce most of their finished textile products, and after the American Revolutionary War, England placed stringent laws on the exportation of textile manufacturing technology. This meant that only the wealthiest of colonists had access to the finest fabrics and finished quilted products entering as imports.
Decorative fashions for bed clothing and window treatments required yardage numbering in the hundreds. This amount of fabric was out of reach of all but the wealthiest, and visitors could immediately perceive the wealth of their host upon entry into the home based on the style, type, and amount of textiles used to dress the main room. The main room often included both the bedroom and the parlor so decorations included bed quilts and hangings, window treatments, and furnishings.
Until just prior to the Civil War, the intricate and time-consuming needlework required to make the high fashion bed quilts was the purview of women who had the leisure time and money required for fine needlework.
By the late 19th century, inexpensive cotton fabrics had democratized quiltmaking. Making traditional bed quilts fell out of favor with the most fashionable people. Middle class women adapted Japanese decorative arts and English needlework in their Victorian home decor. Periodicals like Godey’s Lady’s Book and Harper’s Bazaar played important roles in disseminating these fashions.
In the 20th century, Colonial Revival rhetoric re-branding “old” patterns as fashionable and designers creating new patterns joined women’s periodicals to revive quiltmaking. As home décor, quilts have been susceptible to the whims of fashion and taste.