Friendship Quilts

“Accept our valued friendship
And roll it up in cotton
And think it not illusion
Because so easily gotten." 

1874 quilt presented to school headmaster Eli Hoke

Today, a favorite gift to honor relationships among friends, classmates, relatives, or co-workers is a friendship quilt, with blocks contributedcrafted with fabric paint, embroidery, magic marker, or intricate piecing and appliqueby those within a social network. This tradition has origins that date to the 1840s, when members of social groups signed their names in indelible ink with sentimental phrases like “remember me” or inked their names with carefully carved stamps (see Gender, for a detail of an inked inscription).

Such quilts have long tied community members together, sometimes to mark the occasion of a marriage or when a friend moved away. Quilts often relocated with their owners, moving west away from the East Coast in the 19th century, or circulating among rural midwestern Amish communities, whose members tended to migrate frequently in the 20th century. Friendship quilts also served as a way of commemorating a shared experience, such as classmates graduating from school, or Amish and Mennonites who served together as conscientious objectors to war.

The initial fad—centered in the East Coast, particularly in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New Jerseybegan in the early 1840s and had fallen out of favor by the mid-1850s in this region, although it lasted longer in areas further north, west, and south of the metropolitan mid-Atlantic. The trend had a resurgence in the 1880s and 1890s, although not within the East Coast cities of its origin.

In late 19th- and early 20th-century incarnations of friendship quilts, embroidery rather than ink was the method of choice for signing one’s name. Eventually, makers began using blocks pre-stamped with embroidery designs, to which they added their names, and in some communities, including the Old Order Amish and Mennonites, even mailing addresses. During the late 20th-century’s quilt revival, a variety of quilt forms found their way into friendship quilts, as the symbolism of the social network stitched together was more important than a specific trend or fad.

Unlike the vast majority of historic quilts which feature no makers’ name or attribution, friendship quilts typically present  contemporary researchers with a treasure trove in the form of names inked or stitched into the blocks. Many also include place names and dates, making it even easier to establish a quilt’s origins and perhaps even the makers’ motivations.