Many a quilt consists of an array of small scraps of fabric, creatively stitched together to form a pleasing whole. We often employ the metaphor of sewing bits of fabric together to create something greater than the individual fragments. This “patchwork quilt” idiom endures because we love the idea of using up small bits to make something simultaneously useful and beautiful.
Among quilt historians, the idea of the quilt lovingly assembled by a creative seamstress from bits and pieces of scarce textiles is known as the “scrap bag myth.” Essentially, the myth goes like this: colonial women needed something to keep their family warm, so they recycled scraps of fabric into bedcoverings, creating a utilitarian object from otherwise useless bits and pieces.
This myth—like other nostalgia fueled symbols of American culture—speaks to the American belief in hardworking forebearers, who endured by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Like other quilt myths, this one emerged during the Colonial Revival when Americans looked back with longing toward an imagined past.
During this time progressive-thinking Americans applied Darwin’s theory of evolution to anything and everything, including quilts. In Old Patchwork Quilts (1929), Ruth Finley speculated that quilts evolved from chaos into order, with necessity-driven scrap quilts serving as the first step. Finley did not base her theory on existing quilts; she and other early 20th-century quilt enthusiasts assumed that because examples of such colonial-era scrap quilts did not exist, they had been used up.
Now that scholars have searched through colonial estate records and learned much more about the availability of textiles during this era, we surmise that few women made quilts from remnants of fabric pulled from the scrap bag. Early American quilts are more typically made from whole cloth—pieced from one or two pieces of an expensive imported fabric—rather than from scraps. When quiltmakers employed smaller remnants of fabric, these are more likely leftovers from dressmaking, available in abundance only after the Industrial Revolution.
Any good myth has some basis in reality, and scrap quilts do exist, particularly from later eras.