As the scrap bag myth suggests, we like to imagine quilts as the products of thrift. As we explore in the “Beyond the Myths” section, such beliefs were rooted in romantic understandings of quiltmaking that emerged during the Colonial Revival.
In reality, quilts have often not been objects of frugality and making-do. This section examines how quilts in early America typically were high-class objects made from expensive imported fabrics, then became increasingly democratized as fabric became more abundant and less expensive, and emerged in the 20th century as both an emblem of thrift and a staple of modern consumer culture.
As with other aspects of fashion, quiltmaking trends have been closely aligned with socio-economic class, with all of its hierarchies and nuances. In her dissertation examining the cultural context of quilts made in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in the 19th century, Patricia Keller found that quiltmaking trends were likely disseminated over class lines, with cosmopolitan, wealthier quiltmakers more connected within urban centers passing on trends to more rural, less wealthy members of their social networks. This localized study relying on probate inventories may suggest a mode through which individuals of various classes adopted and adapted the craft of quiltmaking in the early and mid-19th century.
Economic class is a tricky characteristic to assess when it comes to quilts. A wealthy quiltmaker with access to the latest fabrics may choose to recycle feed sacks into a quilt, just as an impoverished quiltmaker may scrimp and save in order to purchase new fabric for a project. Unfortunately, we rarely know enough about a quiltmaker in order to do anything more than make educated guesses about economic class.