The Quilting Bee?

The “quilting bee” has reached mythic proportions as a symbol for the cooperative nature of early colonial work. The myth developed in the midst of urbanization, industrialization, massive waves of migration, and geographic mobility. Americans felt separated from their neighbors and communities and alienated from their work as their lives rapidly shifted from agricultural to industrial; they craved what they perceived as a simpler way of life.

Myth is often based in truth; women of the late 18th century, “the colonial era,” shared the work of quiltmaking out of necessity and pleasure.  Research in women’s diaries and household inventories has shown that women shared textile work.  Work parties of the period included barn raisings, harvestings, and huskings in addition to quilt parties. Late 18th-century diarist Martha Ballard wrote about neighbors teaching her daughters how to warp the family’s loom as well as recording quilting parties to prepare her daughters to “go to housekeeping.” These quilting parties, however, made up only a small proportion of time spent in sharing quiltmaking activities.

During the 1876 Centennial, one of the most popular exhibits was the “colonial kitchen.” Women dressed in “colonial” costume and enacted living history exhibits including quilting parties. Authors Eliza Calvert Hall and Ruth Finley romanticized quilting bees.  The myth transitioned the focus of quilting parties from work-centric to social. The myth turned the quilting bee into a match-making party, an opportunity for young men and women to meet in acceptable social settings after having spent the day working.

Women, especially in rural areas, continued to hold quiltings or work parties throughout the 20th century even as the myth of the quilting bee’s essential role as community-builder continued to grow. In the women’s movement and the quilt revival at the end of the century, quilting bees served as precedent for the formation of quilt guilds and other small quilt groups. Small regular groups regularly call themselves “bees,” quilt shops use the term in their names, and there are even “virtual bees” available to build online communities.