What a time we live in…
Within a hot second of opening an app on our phones or tuning in to one of the too many 24-hour news channels, we can get caught up on world events. And I don’t know about you, but I’m about tired of it all. There’s a part of me – a large part – that wishes events and people would slow down. I long for a past that was made up of three TV channels, no remote, and a phone that was tethered to the wall with wire and a cord.
Ah, the good, old days…
Quilts, you may think, do not necessarily fall into that area of nostalgia, because in many ways, quilts are nostalgia themselves. There has always been someone making them and there has always been someone using them. Items of a bygone era kept up for traditions’ sake, as another generation of textile artists pick up the patterns, put a modern twist on them (either through pattern modification or fabric selection), and keep the craft alive for future generations. So other than “quilts for quilts’ sake” are they relevant?
I don’t often tread too deeply into quilt history, because there are many other folks, such as Barbara Brackman, that do it far better than I. I study and read quilt history because the subject fascinates me, but I am no expert. But I was asked a question recently, by a non-quilter, who wanted to know what place quilts held in women’s history, besides the obvious – a woman providing warm coverings for her household for the fall and winter months. On the face, it would be an easy question to answer and I was tempted to give her a pat one — they were a woman’s voice when all she had to use was a needle and thread. But that’s only part of the place they hold – for if that was the only place they held, by this time in the women’s movement, quilting would be obsolete.
And it’s not. It’s a $3.7 billion industry – annually.
So, you’ve got to figure, there’s more to it than just fabric, needle, and thread.
For years, long before we had the vote, long before women had any rights at all, we had opinions. Historically, our identity was first swallowed up by that of our fathers and then by that of our husbands, but women had their own minds and used them. At the beginning of the Continental Congress, Abigail Adams cautioned her husband to pay attention to the views of women, or down the road there would be hell to pay.
John didn’t, and there was….but that’s another story.
Despite the fact that we couldn’t vote until 1920, women had political views and those views often showed up in their quilts. Before then, it may not have been “polite” for a woman to voice her opinion in a mixed group or pontificate about the subject, but her needlework was hers and quite often her views were front and center on that quilt and the men were none the wiser. Even before the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 (if you’re female and you don’t know what that is, stop right now and spend some quality time researching it), women had been voicing their views through samplers, journals, letters and quilts.
Women took the task of quilting and used that – through imagery and motifs both appliqued and pieced – to show their political view points and often times their patriotism. Eagles, laurel wreaths, flags, shields, stars, red-white-and-blue color schemes and patriotic sayings wove their way into quilt tops. Sometimes these quilts were made for particular events – the Centennial and Bicentennial come to mind. Other times they were for political campaigns or for major events in our country’s history.
Still other quilt tops have raw emotion stitched into them. Anti-war quilts, the AIDS quilt, quilts that were made to commemorate 9/11 – the fears, tears, and prayers infused in those quilts are almost tangible. Then at times women named a block that conveyed a political stance – Polk’s Fancy, Dolly Madison’s Star, Whig’s Defeat, Mexican Rose. All of those have political connections and a quilt top made designed with one of those blocks throughout made a powerful statement. When a woman could not voice her opinion in meetings or cast a ballot, no one could tell her what to sew.
I often wonder if the men had any clue at all….
Throughout our country’s history women have quilted for home and for charitable causes. They wielded fabric and thread for a variety of reasons. Now, at this point in history, while we may use quilts on our beds, there is no real reason we must quilt to keep us warm. If one needs a bed spread or a comforter, a quick trip to Target or a point-and-click episode on the Amazon app can take care of that.
Yet, we still quilt. In many ways this art form remains my voice. Yes, I speak at townhall meetings, vote regularly, post far too much on social media. But it is the time spent with fabric and patterns that probably reveals more of myself than anything else. I can look at a quilt and remember what I was thinking about, praying for, going through. I shudder when I think about what some of my quilts know about me that no one else does.
Likewise, the folks that I quilt with … they probably know more about me than anyone else. For a woman has no sisters, I have plenty that hold that place through the DNA of fabric and stitches. We’ve laughed together, cried together, and prayed together. They are a source of strength and joy.
So what place does quilting and quilts hold in women’s history? They were our voice when we didn’t have any. They’ve been a source of artistic outlet and support group. They’ve kept us warm and they’ve kept us sane.
They’ve said what we couldn’t…or wouldn’t. Opinions, grief, joy, frustration, and anger have been sewn into quilt tops. If those tops could speak, what sermons they would preach.
Until next week, Quilt with Excellence!
Sherri and Sam