“During this period, crafts were hybrids of both past and future, often embodying conflicting attributes. They were authentic as well as affected. They were conceived within a barter system and matured with a market system. They were silent in terms of authorship, yet uniquely individual.”
—Jane Kessler (“From Mission to Market: Craft in the Southern Appalachians,” Revivals! Diverse Traditions: The History of Twentieth Century American Craft 1920-1945)
Americans are fascinated by hand-crafted objects and their connections to an American identity. Driving along highways, a traveler regularly comes across signs for hand-crafted furniture, locally-made jewelry, and locally produced bakery items. Quilts are part of that hand-crafted industry. Cooperatives—jointly owned enterprises engaged in the production of goods and operated by its members for their mutual benefit—fit the ideal of the independent, self-sufficient American and the entrepreneurship of small businesses.
Handicrafts cooperatives, rooted in the social reform movements of the late-19th century, maintained a tradition but were also meant to provide meaningful employment to the poor. In 1930, some of these independent groups formed the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild to promote and market their crafts. During the New Deal, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Milwaukee Handicrafts Project employed young artists to teach hundreds of unemployed women usable skills with which to create products for charitable organizations.
Although Kessler was speaking about the 1930s, the same process of hybridization and affected authenticity allowed for the development of quilt cooperatives between 1960 and 1990. In Appalachia, in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, in Amish communities, or on the Lakota Sioux reservations of North and South Dakota, local crafts were "discovered” by mainstream Americans who wanted to buy a piece of authentic Americana.
In response to the interest in their products, craftswomen—often with help and guidance from collectors and buyers—sold their goods by “selling tradition.” Although they created new objects for sale and sometimes updated traditional patterns to reflect the desires of consumers rather than the makers, cooperatives were most successful when they represented their products as examples of their cultural or regional traditions.