Decorative arts revivals coincide with moments of transition, upheaval, and commemoration in American history. Quilt revivals occur around celebrations of national anniversaries, as part of a desire for an authentic American art/craft, and as a reaction to changes in technology and demography. The relationship of quiltmakers to creativity changes with each revival.
After the Civil War, industrialization, urbanization, and mobility impacted quiltmaking. Industrialization made quiltmaking affordable to the masses who chose to use the new calicos in an infinite variety of pieced block style quilts.
The Aesthetic Movement of the 1870s and 1880s advanced ideals for the beautification of the industrial world. For quilters, inspiration came from the celebration of the nation’s Centennial in 1876. Crazy quilts that used luxury fabrics fit Victorian ideals of decoration while their asymmetrical arrangements allowed significant freedom in design.
By the late 1880s, Colonial Revival rhetoric espoused an idealized American past. Women’s periodicals published “old-tyme” patterns bearing the names of famous Americans. Making a colonial-style quilt was a way to identify with American history. This rhetoric continued into the 20th century despite the introduction of a whole new aesthetic. Women quickly adopted the new patterns and technologies resulting in the homogenization of quilt design.
After World War II women returned to the domestic sphere taking advantage of ready-made products. During the 1960s and 1970s, however, the continued interest in folk art and a craft revival created a backlash against mass-production. First, quilts appealed to counterculture sensibilities which celebrated the simplicity and authenticity of a pre-industrial period. Then, quilts became a way for women to participate in the celebrations of the Bicentennial as quilts again became symbols of American women’s contributions to history and art.
During the late 20th and early 21st centuries, quilting’s popularity continued to expand. The use of technology permeated discussions of what made a quilt really a quilt. Quiltmakers struggled to define the craft’s relationship to technology and creativity. Presently, the answer seems centered around the quiltmaker’s own perceptions. Kits and patterns abound for the hobbyist while the language of creativity has grown more complex with the introduction of new professionals.