Utility and Thrift

Quiltmaking in the United States may have started out as a high-style craft, but by the 20th century Americans associated quilts with utility and thrift, perhaps due in part to Colonial Revivalists’ promotion of these qualities in their early 20th-century writings about quilts. Some quiltmakers indeed did made quilts with utility and thrift at the forefront of their minds, particularly in the midst of the Great Depression.

Many of the fancy quilts preserved at the IQSC&M show very little wear, suggesting they are not necessarily utilitarian objects. Others clearly received everyday use, and may have been made from more utilitarian fabrics, like the suiting samples Cora James used to stitch the “kitchen quilt” shown in the image carousel.

Other quilts are harder to decipher, because they may have been made with thrift in mind, but perhaps not utility. Carrie Stelzer’s Grandmother’s Flower Garden quilt (in the image carousel), still in excellent condition, is an example. Stelzer, recalled by her family as extremely frugal, made this quilt for her daughter Teresa. Grandmother’s Flower Garden was an ideal pattern for utilizing scraps of fabric left from making clothing, which Carrie was known to do. Yet the quilt was preserved as a heirloom prior to its entry into the IQSC&M collection, suggesting it was not a utilitarian object, even if it was conceived in thrift.

Another particularly thrifty method of using up scraps was a string quilt, foundation pieced on a backing fabric or newspaper out of small “strings” of cloth. String quilts have been common among quiltmakers known for their attitude of making do, including within communities in New England, New Mexico, and the rural South.  

How do utility and thrift relate to economic class? Rarely have quiltmakers made quilts solely for utilitythe need for a warm bedcovering at night. There are easier ways to devise a bedcovering than painstakingly stitching together scraps of fabric. But if an impoverished individual was inclined to like handwork and appreciate a beautiful finished project, she might take it upon herself to make a quilt, as many during the Great Depression did, not only to cover beds but to soothe souls.