Colonial Quiltmakers?

Did women in colonial America make quilts? We’d like to think so, as it conjures up images of hardworking women frugally re-using scraps of fabric in order to make bedcovers to keep their family warm. The notion resonates, because it demonstrates the fortitude of colonial women, making do with limited resources. But is there evidence to support the presence of colonial quiltmaking? Or is it another myth?

In colonial America, textiles were among the most expensive objects found in homes. The industrial technologies that introduced factory-made, inexpensive cloth were still decades away. Quilts in colonial homes typically were made from expensive imported fabrics. Quiltmaking was not yet the democratic art that it would become in the mid-19th century, when an abundance of cotton fabric made it more feasible to cut fabric up into pieces in order to stitch it back together.

By the time of the Civil War, Americans were nostalgic for an imagined colonial past. Many understood quilts as symbolic of the industrious frugality of their foremothers. In the “colonial kitchens” of Civil War Sanitary Fairs and late 19th-century world’s fairs, spinning wheels, kettles over hearths, and quilting frames were all prominent fixtures. Out of these early reenactments emerged the “colonial revival,” in which some Americans embraced a decorative style inspired by the past as a means of mitigating the effects of rapid modernization.

During the American Bicentennial, Americans again celebrated what they viewed as a distinctly American form of cultural production, surmising that quiltmaking was a quintessential act of their colonial foremothers. But as part of this late 20th-century quilt revival, scholars emerged who pored over estate inventories and extant quilts to investigate whether colonial women really made quilts, discovering that evidence of widespread colonial quiltmaking was in fact scarce.