20th-Century Cottage Industries

“You don’t have to make it like you like it—you have to make it like the person who buys it likes it.”1

Within cottage industrieshome based enterprises producing quilts for the consumer marketmaking quilts was a  job. Quiltmaking shifted from a leisure activity or expression of creativity to a means to make a living, typically not a very lucrative one.

Cuesta Benberry traces the development of quilt cottage industries, with the first emerging in the late 19th century. Many of these businesses served the dual purpose of selling seemingly traditional productslike Mountain Cabin Quilts, based in the Southern Highlands of Appalachiawhile providing impoverished women with work, what art historian Glenn Adamson refers to as “craft missionary work.”2

Quilt cottage industries flourished in the early decades of the 20th century, appealing to consumer taste for “Colonial Revival” home furnishings and advertising in national magazines like House Beautiful. Business models varied, with some offering just quilting services, while others marketed a full line of quilted bedding and accoutrements.

Cottage industries have lived on within Amish settlements, where quilt businesses exploded in number during the 1980s and 1990s. Consumer interest responsed to art-world fascination with antique Amish quilts, coupled with the need for Amish families to establish enterprises to replace farm income that increasingly was hard to come by.

For quiltmakers accustomed to choosing fabrics and patterns to their pleasing, the prospect of quilting for hire may have limited not only creativity, but the pleasure of showing off one’s finished product within the domestic setting. Quilts made within cottage industries may be the true anonymous works, particularly because multiple quiltmakers often contributed to distinct aspects of the projectsuch as cutting, piecing, marking, quilting, or bindingand the final product was removed from its community of creation.

1. Isadora Williams quoted in Jane Becker, Selling Tradition: Appalachia and the Construction of an American Folk, 1930-1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998) 76-77.

2. Glenn Adamson, Thinking Through Craft (Oxford: Berg, 2007), 111-12.