Even though we often romanticize quiltmaking as a thrifty domestic craft, as evidence of the preindustrial spirit of making do with what could be produced at home, quiltmaking is very much a product of industrialization—specifically the increased mechanization of textile processing that began in Europe in the second half of the 18th century. The Industrial Revolution crossed the Atlantic, beginning with Slater Mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in the 1790s.
Prior to these innovations—including the spinning jenny, the cotton gin, the flying shuttle, all sorts of advances in printing and dyeing—textiles were among the most expensive objects in American homes. But by the 1830s, inexpensive printed cotton fabrics were abundant and readily available for use in domestically produced clothing and quilts. Improved transportation networks resulted in increased access to consumer goods, including cloth, needles, and scissors, and by the 1860s, sewing machines for domestic use.
In addition to transforming the New England landscape, with textile mills dotting rivers, industrialization changed quiltmaking by shifting it from an elite craft requiring expensive and precious imported fabric, to one hinging on abundance. Only once fabric was cheap and readily available thanks to the advances of the Industrial Revolution would American women choose to cut it up only to sew it back together into a patchwork quilts.