“The comforts of the family depended upon the thrift, energy, and thoughtfulness of the women.”
– Marie Webster, Quilts, Their Story and How to Make Them (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1915).
“Needlework is the one art in which women controlled the education of their daughters, the production of the art, and were also the audience and critics.”
– Patricia Mainardi, “Quilts: The Great American Art,” The Feminist Art Journal, (Winter 1973).
In the 19th century, most American women knew how to sew. This was not just acceptable work for women; in many cases, it was necessary work. Nearly all American women stitched their family members’ clothing and other domestic textiles until the introduction of ready-made garments. Making quilts also fell squarely into the realm of women’s work, even though it was much less a necessity than making other items. Even after the advent of industrialization, many girls learned plain stitching, necessary for making household textiles and clothing through completed “stints” of hand stitching patchwork.
As the Industrial Revolution removed forms of textile production from the realm of women’s work—spinning and weaving for example—many women felt compelled—perhaps by the advice literature of the so called “cult of domesticity” or perhaps by their own creative urges—to take on non-essential textile arts, including quiltmaking. The act of cutting apart pieces of factory-made cloth in order to sew it back to together may have symbolically replaced the other sorts of women’s work now relegated to factories.
As the quotations that introduce this page demonstrate, Americans have long celebrated quiltmaking as women’s work beginning in the Colonial Revival, again during the 1960s-1970s “second wave” of feminism, and now as part of a revival of new domesticity.
Of course, not all women have enjoyed or excelled at making quilts. And we know of many examples of male quiltmakers. For these reasons it is too simplistic to say that “making quilts is women’s work.” In our ongoing enthusiasm for quilts, we have perhaps romanticized them as such, rather than completely acknowledging their position outside of domestic spaces, within industrialization and consumer culture.