Although today we are used to thinking of quiltmaking solely as a hobby, in the past it was frequently a professional pursuit. Particularly in places like France and Britain, workers—sometimes women, but more often men—made their living quilting clothing, bed coverings, and other household furnishings.
In the United States, professional quiltmakers were rare in the 18th and 19th centuries, but there are distinct examples of quilt-based cottage industries. For instance, one of the 19th century’s most-recognized quilt styles, the Baltimore Album quilt, is now understood to have been at least partially a commercial phenomenon. By identifying repeat patterns and fabrics on dozens of extant examples, scholars have determined that some of the quilts must have been designed by a limited number of people and possibly even produced as a kit, perhaps in a workshop or other multi-person setting.
In the 20th century, quilt-related industries took off as a profession. Famous designers like Marie Webster and Ruby McKim were able to make a living with their kits and patterns and most major newspapers and women’s magazines had quilt columnists. Producing finished quilts was also a commercially successful pursuit for some business people. For instance, the Wilkinson Sisters of Ligonier, Indiana, established a quilt factory in 1908 and continued to make fashionable satin whole-cloth quilts up until World War II.
Today, Americans’ love of quilts supports a range of occupations. Teachers, designers, salespeople, and even museum curators exist to design, share, and interpret quilts. And professional quiltmaking, while sometimes parceled out into separate tasks—for instance, the quilting, which professionals sometimes complete using a longarm machine—is thriving. Whether you want a quilt to decorate a wall or a keepsake quilt constructed from a lifetime of T-shirts, someone is ready and willing to make it for you.