Okay, let’s start this blog off a little differently. Let’s play a word association game. When I say, “The 1970’s” what do you think about?
Those avocado green kitchen appliances?
The Vietnam War?
Lots of items, people, events, and places are strongly connected to the Decade of the Seventies. The one thing which probably didn’t cross your mind was quilts. In general, quilters don’t think about the seventies being one of those eras which produced many (if any) groundbreaking quilts or quilters.
And if you believe that, I have a bridge in San Francisco I’d like to sell you.
The 1970’s were the Wild West of Quilting. This 10-year period was packed with new ideas and devoted new quilters. Most of our existing quilt guilds were formed from quilters in this era. It was these quilters and their quilts which pushed new quilting tools and planted the first seeds of the Quilt Projects which took place in the 1980’s. However, there are two events which absolutely must be closely examined as we think about the psychedelic quilts of the seventies:
- Jonathan Holstein’s and Gail van der Hoof’s quilt show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.
- The invention of polyester fabric.
We’ll get to both of those in just a bit because they are both equally important. But first, let’s discuss what the Seventies were like, because like most quilts and quilters, societal issues shaped the quilts and formed quilter’s backdrop.
To begin with, World War II was over. We realize it was this War which eventually pulled us out of the aftershocks of the Great Depression, and if you’ve read my blogs:
You know what kind of quilts were made during this time. During the seventies, we had the end of Vietnam War, but the Cold War lingered for a few more decades. Civil Rights struggles were front and center of many newscasts and newspapers. Prompted by a speech from President John F. Kennedy in the sixties, we were still exploring space, and this exploration developed many products for our homes and lives some of us can’t remember not ever having.
And while the seventies were a decade of technological growth and intellectual expansion, ever pushing for life to be good now and even better in the future, there was a societal push back. The Back to Nature culture also took off. I remember a series of books called Foxfire. These examined all kinds of “back to nature” topics, such Appalachian cooking, hog dressing, log cabin building, mountain crafts, moonshining, planting by the signs, snake lore, and faith healing. The entire set was in my parent’s bookcase, and I think the closest we came to employing any of this in our lives was the “Planting by the Signs” part. These books were runaway best sellers and the forerunner of our modern Preppers Movement.
There truly is nothing new under the sun. For us quilters, the upside to this was the Back to Nature movement heavily pushed handmade crafts, including quilting.
Then the 1976 Bicentennial Year amped the handicraft movement up about 100 notches.
And if there is one person we can point to as initiating this renewed interest in quilting, it’s this lady.
Rose Wilder Lane.
Yes, that Rose Wilder Lane – Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter. Like her mother, Ms. Lane was a writer. If you read any of the literary critics concerning Rose’s writing, one of the first details you’ll discover is there is a real quandary about who exactly wrote what. Many of Rose Wilder Lane’s books roughly follow the same story paths as the Little House Books. Yet we know Rose helped Laura edit her books. However, that’s another discussion for another day. What we quilters are concerned with is this: Rose Wilder Lane liked quilts. She wrote about them. In 1961, she wrote an article called “Patchwork” and it was published in Woman’s Day. Some of this writing is fanciful, some of it is straight-up fiction, but it was this article many of the 1970’s quilters turned to for instruction and inspiration.
However, we must also keep in mind is what wasn’t available in the Seventies: the internet, hundreds of books about quilting, quilting notions, quilting classes, and local quilt shops were few and far between, if available at all. In short, everything we completely take for granted, for the most part wasn’t available to a person in the 1970’s who wanted to learn to quilt. There were a few mail-order quilting supply places. The library may have a few resources, but a straight stitch sewing machine, a good pair of fabric scissors, needles, thread (usually Coats and Clark or Dual Duty), and cardboard and sandpaper for templates were all you had, and for the most part, all you needed. However, there is an interesting result from this lack of resources: quilters felt free to figure things out for themselves. There was no right or wrong way – it was whatever worked. And from this mind frame sprang ideas for new tools, new machines, and new techniques. Quilting in the Seventies was a cross between Little House on the Prairie and the Starship Enterprise.
You know what also wasn’t readily available in the Seventies?
Cotton crops didn’t do too well, and cotton fabric was expensive. If you grew up in the seventies like I did, you remember what fabric we wore: polyester and double knit. On one hand, it was great. It was relatively cheap. It didn’t wrinkle. It didn’t fade. It came in a variety of colors.
On the other hand, it was terribly hot, horribly scratchy, uncomfortable, and it picked easily. I also remember the smell. It absolutely did not breathe, which meant if you got hot and sweaty, there wasn’t enough deodorant in the world to tone down your own body odor and the stinky smell of the polyester. I hit my preteens and teen years during the seventies and my mom made all my clothes. There was this fabric store in Burlington called “The Remanent Shop” and that was where we went to buy fabric. As soon as the doors opened, I had to give myself a minute because the smell of all that polyester was stomach-churning.
Because polyester was sometimes all that was available to quilters, they had to use it in their quilts.
I realize some of my readers may not be old enough to remember the joys of early polyester. So let me give you a brief chemistry lesson, because polyester is a chemical not a fiber. It is formed by a chemical reaction between an acid and an alcohol. The polyester used in fabric most commonly refers to polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE for short). It is also a thermoplastic which means it melts and is malleable at certain temperatures (about 480 degrees F) and it turns back into a solid when it cools.
The polyester fabric we had to deal with in the 1970’s was far different than what we have today. As far as the material purchased for today’s garment construction, we’re used to cotton/poly blends (which has the breathability of cotton but doesn’t wrinkle), or the polyester blended with rayon and spandex. The polyester of the Seventies was thicker, so when it was used in quilts, quilters really had a lot of bulk they had to deal with. It was too thick to use with prepared edge applique. As a result quilters learned to use simple applique shapes and either blanket stitch around them by hand or use the zig zag stitch on their sewing machines. But imagine how difficult this all was – dealing with super-bulky seams, not being able to press seams as flat as you needed to, and then once the quilt was finished, it was both heavy and scratchy.
But let me remind you it was the Seventies. There was no list of do’s and don’ts. Quilters made their own rules and then broke them the next day if the rules no longer worked. They pushed and pestered fabric manufacturers until they finally did start manufacturing cotton/poly blends. And while these aren’t ideal for piecing or applique (they don’t hold a crease well), they were a far sight better than the straight-up nasty 1970’s polyester (I was never a fan – can you tell?).
What amazes me about this group of quilters is they came up with their own solutions and developed their own tools without a social media network, sewing group, classes, or even guilds. There were loose quilting networks which met together in churches or used the US Postal Service to send letters and patterns back and forth. They took the vivid, bright, “groovy”, color palates of the Seventies, combined them with traditional blocks and came up with wonderful quilts.
This era produced quilters such as Faith Ringgold, Yvonne Wells, MC Lamb, Jean Raye Laurie, and Nancy Crow. There is one quilter we especially owe a debt of gratitude:
Today when her name is mentioned, we tend to think about her rulers and templates (which are awesome, by the way – I have
quite a few several). But by the end of the 1970’s, she’s the one who really pushed quilting to the platform we have today. She is an author (she’s published well over 30 books), entrepreneur, pattern writer, and fabric designer. She is the driving force who kept quilting relevant after the Bicentennial and saved it from becoming a dying art.
Marti and her husband moved to Atlanta, Georgia in 1970. After settling in, she signed up for quilt classes which were offered through her local church. The quilting bug bit hard and soon she began teaching quilting as a side hustle. Infectious, positive, energetic, and fun, her classes filled quickly. Marti realized a couple of things. First, finding decent polyester fabric to quilt with was difficult. She made some phone calls and mailed some letters to fabric manufacturers. The manufacturers agreed to let her purchase the fabric she needed for her classes. From this fabric, she developed patterns and quilt kits for her students.
She also realized something else – hand quilting polyester quilts was difficult. It wasn’t impossible, but even if a thin batting and a muslin backing was used, there still was a great deal of bulk in the top and that was hard to rock a quilt needle through. So, she came up with a radical idea – let’s quilt these things on a sewing machine.
Traditional quilters were horrified.
The quilters who came to the art in the Seventies were delighted.
At this point, let’s keep in mind what the 1970’s quilter didn’t have: Long arms, mid arms, or sewing machines with large harps. There was no spray baste or fuse baste. Quilts were pin or thread basted and then they had to be fed through a sewing machine with a regular sized harp. And while this was possible, the process was bulky and awkward. Not one to be daunted, Marti came up with two quilting ideas. She developed the quilt-as-you-go method and the technique of quilting your quilt in sections and then joining those sections together.
Marti Michell also overhauled the quilting fabric arena. Remember earlier I told you she developed a relationship with fabric producers in order to get the type of material she needed for her quilt classes. The fabric producers loved her can-do, positive attitude and asked her to design some fabric, which she did. Marti then began pushing them to manufacture 100 percent quilting cottons. Although reluctant at first, eventually they did, producing true quilting cottons by the early 1980’s – 100 percent cotton, with a slightly tighter weave than regular cotton fabric.
The second event which shaped the quilts of the Seventies was Jonathan Holstein’s and Gail van der Hoof’s quilt show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. This show was held in July 1971 and was called Abstract Design in American Quilts. The exhibition contained sixty pieced quilts from the collection of Gail van der Hoof and Jonathan Holstein, chosen purely for their visual content. Art critics discussed what the exhibit meant: Was it decorative art? Were the quilts merely canvasses?
They were really neither, yet they did fall somewhere in between the two. Gail van der Hoof and Jonathan Holstein spent three years collecting quilts (primarily in the Eastern United States). Back then, quilts were pulled out of closets, trunks, and cabinets. They were looked at, admired, then folded up and put away. Gail and Jonathan wanted to show their quilts in a different manner. When they displayed their quilt collect at the Whitney Museum, the quilts were hung, and not displayed horizontally like they would appear on a bed. Now, we take this way of displaying quilts for granted, but in the Seventies, this was pretty radical. Suddenly the quilts were at eye level. Instead of appearing as just “mere quilts” they morphed into works of art. This completely set the art world on its head and increased the interest in quilts and quilters tremendously.
The quilts produced in the Seventies had dramatic colors and bold, abstract designs. They held free-spirited inventiveness. For a while, the Crazy Quilt enjoyed a brief revival. Quilters were equally bold and free-spirited. Guidelines and “rules” were few and far between. Like their quilting foremothers in the 18th and 19th century, they made their own guidelines and felt the freedom to promptly break them if they didn’t work. It was a decade of quilt exploration and creative freedom. However, by the end of the Seventies, quilters knew in order to keep quilting relevant and push it to a level where things were easier and more accurate, some changes needed to be made.
One of the biggest legacies these quilters leave us with (besides some really cool quilts) is Quilt Guilds. While Quilt Guilds did exist prior to this decade, by the end of the 1970’s quilters were forming new and larger guilds to promote education, charity work, and a support group for new ideas and new quilters. The second legacy they left us with is better tools. As these quilters transitioned into the Eighties, they discovered the rotary cutter and mat – which completely redefined both the cutting process and quilt patterns. They pushed for better marking tools than a #2 pencil. They lobbied fabric stores to carry a better assortment of thread. And as the market for all this quilting fabric and notions grew, quilting entrepreneurs opened shops just for quilters. Most of these shops also had some classroom space and soon those 1970’s innovative and daring quilters found themselves teaching the next generation of quilters.
And the decade came full circle. I think our quilting foremothers would have approved.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog about the Groovy Quilts of the Seventies. Truthfully, I don’t think this is a decade of quilts we think a lot about, but it is truly one we owe a debt of gratitude to. Without those quilters, we wouldn’t have the wonderful fabric and quilting notions we tend to take for granted.
Until Next Week, Make Your Quilt Yours!
Love and Stitches,