Beyond the Myths

Seemingly stitched together with a secret combination of love and fortitude, quilts have become objects that serve a purpose much greater than a bedcovering. Quilts carry memory and meaning. They also carry myth.

Since as early as the American Civil War, myths about quiltmaking have shaped Americans’ understanding of these bedcovers. In the mid- to late 19th century, some Americans—fueled by an admiring respect for their colonial forebearers—began to imagine quilts as objects made by hardworking, ingenious, yet humble colonial Americans, who lovingly stitched them together from scraps of fabrics no longer of use as clothing or furnishings. These and other quilt myths have endured, just as new myths—like the one that celebrates the role quilt patterns played in the Underground Railroad—have emerged.

Myths serve a significant role in any group’s understanding of its own identity, as they reveal the aspirations, histories, traditions, and values of a nation, community, or people. Myths have a function to play and should not be disregarded simply as “untrue.” The nuggets of truth are important, but perhaps more important are the reasons myths endure. Myths ring true because they continue to give meaning and structure to the narratives we tell about ourselves.

Because quilts are so symbolically important, it is important to separate the myths—significant in their own right—from what scholars of quilt and textile history can tell us about these objects and the people who made them. The myths, however, endure for important reasons. In this section, we go beyond mere myth busting to explore why quilt myths continue to resonate into the 21st century.