Can you “read” a quilt for information about its maker’s race or ethnic origin? Is there a difference between a quilt made by a quiltmaker of Germanic background and one of Native American background? Generally, researchers cannot determine the ethnicity of the maker solely by studying the quilt. When quilts enter a museum or private collection they are sometimes generations removed from their date of creation, and have little accompanying provenance, or history of ownership. Families sometimes have romantic views of their ancestral quiltmakers or incorrect information about who made a given quilt; further, existing quilts probably do not represent the totality of what women made.
Research projects over the last forty years have gathered enough data about quilts and their makers that scholars have started noting regional styles and some ethnic trends. Just as often though, differences are connected to available materials, religion, or socio-economic factors. Scholars have also found that quilt styles across the country tend to follow popular trends. Although we often use ethnic designations to identify some quilts, that does not guarantee the ethnicity of the quiltmaker.
The problem with identifying one quilt style as “African American,” “Amish,” or “Hawaiian” is that it leaves little room for the variety of quilts that an ethnic group makes and for the individual preferences of makers. These designations also exclude the importance of outside influences, other than ethnicity, that may influence quilt styles, such as availability of fabric or cross-ethnic interaction. In the early 20th century, for example, Amish fabric choices depended on what urban traveling salesmen offered them, what was available in the pages of Sears and Roebuck’s catalog, and what local dry goods stores stocked. Historically, European-American Christian missionaries have influenced textile traditions by teaching quiltmaking to groups including Hawaiians, Lakota Sioux, and Florida Seminoles, each of which has developed distinct traditions of their own.
Current quiltmaking practices prove that identifying ethnicity in quilts is challenging. Today’s maker can purchase a kit to make a quilt like the ones made by the women of Gee's Bend. Quiltmakers have adopted the saturated, solid colored aesthetic of Amish quilts. How should we categorize an appliqued Breadfruit pattern made by a woman in South Dakota who has never been to Hawaii or met a Hawaiian?