Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof of New York City began collecting quilts in the late 1960s, inspired by their shared loved of American art and folk art. Gail was a trained artist and craftswoman and Jonathan had spent the previous decade steeped in Manhattan's art world, photographing, writing about, and spending time with modern artists and their work, including pop art and abstract expressionist painters such as Roy Lichtenstein and Barnett Newman.

For Holstein and van der Hoof, discovering quilts was more serendipitous than directed. In fact, it wasn't so much a matter of discovering quilts as being surrounded by them when they went on their frequent weekend journeys to Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Looking for interesting folk art at flea markets, second-hand stores, and dealers' shops, the couple repeatedly encountered examples of antique quilts. The more they saw them, the more they liked them and they soon began buying them. As Holstein describes in Abstract Design in American Quilts: A Biography of an Exhibition, rather than experiencing a single "Eureka!" moment, collecting quilts for them was "a gradual process quickened at the end by specific quilts which stimulated our thinking and our urge to discover." Within a relatively short amount of time, they had accumulated a large number of quilts from Pennsylvania, and had also expanded their collecting journeys to New England and other parts of the East Coast. Their main rule, mostly followed until they started to seriously collect Amish quilts, was never to spend more than $35 per piece (about $230 in 2021 dollars).

Having built a large and broadly representative antique pieced quilt collection, the couple felt compelled to share with a large audience what they saw as the aesthetic genius of 19th- and early 20th-century American quiltmakers. The only way accomplish that objective, they felt, was to go big: to present an exhibition at a major New York art museum.