Using a quilt as a dog bed or picnic spread is far removed from the honored place that many quilts held prior to the Industrial Revolution; however, quilts became commonplace utilitarian objects by the late 20th century. The “democratization” of quiltmaking was made possible by the abundance of factory-produced textiles, but it was more than the expansion of quiltmaking to the middle and lower classes: in the 20th century quiltmaking became a symbol of the American democratic spirit.
Pieced quilts from inexpensive purchased yardage and material leftover from other projects became economically feasible to make after the Civil War for women of all classes. Prior to this, the idea of purchasing materials just to cut them up and stitch them back together was impractical. Women were encouraged to make these time-intensive goods as symbols of their domestic abilities and to display a middle-class sensibility.
The rhetoric of the Colonial Revival solidified the symbol of quilts as women’s contribution to democracy in America. In addition, the added democratizing force of mass consumer culture gave quiltmakers access to an array of patterns, kits, and how-to knowledge. Magazines, newspapers, and quilt books encouraged women to make or purchase family heirlooms to establish their identity as good Americans. They presented quiltmaking as a thrifty use of time and materials invoking the “pioneer woman” as a model. Quiltmaking at all economic levels, often using scraps or materials at hand, further enhanced this image during the Great Depression.
In the 1970s, women once again used quilts to invoke the democratic spirit by reclaiming the independent “pioneer woman” rhetoric. They used quilts to call into question government actions, to commemorate national history, and to express pride in their female ancestors. Grassroots, anti-industrial groups made patchwork garments and bedcoverings at the same time that rural cooperatives used them for economic stability.