Globalization of American-Style Quilts

People all over the world have been inspired to make American-style quilts (which, of course, have roots in other European traditions). In some parts of the world where quiltmaking was not indigenous, outsiders have introduced the craft and it has been enthusiastically adopted. For instance, there are quilt guilds in dozens of countries around the world where quilts were not traditionally made, like South Africa, Kenya, Mexico, and Norway. Some countries have embraced quiltmaking more enthusiastically than others.

Take Japan, for instance. Although quilting and patchwork techniques have been used in Japan for millennia, block-style quilts were not made in Japan until Japanese needleworkers were exposed to historic American quilts. The most dramatic introduction of American quilts to the Japanese public occurred in 1975, when Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof’s exhibition, Abstract Design in American Quilts toured the island nation. Japanese women, reminded of earlier eras when needlework had been a daily part of life, began making quilts in huge numbers: “the Holstein exhibition stirred a memory of a way of life that had seemed destined to be lost forever.”1 Today, there are an estimated 2 to 3 million quiltmakers in Japan.

When Japanese quiltmakers first responded to the introduction of American quilt styles, many simply reproduced typical American patterns such as Log Cabin and Variable Star. As time went on, however, quiltmakers added references to their native culture, creating a fusion of Japanese and American styles. The use of antique kimono fabrics or the incorporation of Japanese symbols such as cranes gave quilts a distinctly Japanese flavor (or wa). Japanese quiltmakers eventually broadened the boundaries even further, making quilting a Japanese art in its own right.

1. Jill Liddell and Yuko Watanabe, Japanese Quilts (New York: E. P. Dutton. 1988), ix.