Quilts and Quiltmaking in America, 1978-1996 is an ethnographic field collection that contains photographs and sound recordings documenting quilts from two sources -- the Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection and the Lands' End All-American Quilt Contest. Recorded interviews with quilters highlight quilting within the context of daily life. The quilts reflect the range of backgrounds, motivations, and artistic tastes of the quiltmakers. The online collection shows both highly traditional and innovative quilts, and demonstrates the artisans' excellent design and technical skill
These online presentations provide context and additional information about this collection.
- Speaking of Quilts: Voices from the Late 20th Century
- Blue Ridge Quilters
- The Lands' End All-American Quilt Contest
These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.
- Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930
- Postwar United States: 1945-early 1970s
Related Collections and Exhibits
- American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940
- Bound for Glory: America in Color, 1939-1943
- Buckaroos in Paradise: Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada, 1945-1982
- California Gold: Folk Music from the Thirties
- FSA-OWI Photographs
- Hispano Music and Culture of the Northern Rio Grande
- Voices from the Dust Bowl, 1940-1941
Recommended additional sources of information.
Specific guidance for searching this collection.
For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.
Quilts and Quiltmaking in America 1978-1996 is comprised of two smaller collections. The first contains sound recordings of interviews done in 1978, of six Appalachian women identified by researchers as traditional quiltmakers with photographs of their work. Discussing their past and the lives of their ancestors, these quilters provide information about quilting and American social history from as early as the late nineteenth century to the time of the interviews. The second portion of this collection documents American quilting in the late twentieth century through photographs of and notes about approximately 180 winning quilts from the Lands' End All-American Quilt Contest, held in 1992, 1994, and 1996.
1) Rural Life and an Agrarian, Pre-War, Local Economy
Interviews with six quilters from Appalachian North Carolina and Virginia together with photographs portray the rural life of this region and its agrarian, pre-World War II, local economy.
Making her own quilts was just one of many ways a woman dealt with living in a time and place where resources and money were hard to come by. Students can get a sense of this lack and the self-sufficient lifestyle it necessitated by listening to quilters describe how they, their mothers, and grandmothers made quilts from old clothes, feed bags, sacks, and tiny scraps, to keep their families warm. Locate these recordings by searching on money, warm, scraps, and sacks.
Searches on storm window, heat, fireplace, washing machine, and treadle locate interviews that will help students understand the lack of modern-day amenities in the region's recent past and changes since that time. Searching on Christmas, hard, and farm, students will get a sense of how hard a rural lifestyle could be. Items found by searching on neighborhood, neighbor, and group reflect the role of community in this region, and can be supplemented by searching on quilting bee in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. After they sample a few of these items, have them answer the following questions:
- What kinds of chores are mentioned by these women?
- Are these chores that you or your family do today? How are they the same and different?
- Would you have liked living in this region in the first half of the 1900s? Why or why not?
- Was the experience of rural Americans changed by the Great Depression? Search on depression for evidence and analyze and interpret this evidence to answer the question.
- Was life different for African-Americans living in this region? Search on slave, and black people, and read the biographies in the special presentation, Blue Ridge Quilters, to see if you can answer this question.
- What other collections in American Memory could you use to answer these questions?
2) Toward a Modern Culture and Economy
The collection provides first-hand evidence of the modernization of the American economy and culture throughout the twentieth century. Searching on craft, sell, cutaways, Sears Roebuck, and Mountain Mist locates interviews in which Blue Ridge quilters note the effects of an expanded economy and increased commercialization upon quilting. Students will also get a sense of the changes of modernization by comparing the work of the Lands' End quilters with that of the Blue Ridge quilters. Students can access photographs of the Blue Ridge quilters and their work in the Gallery of Photographs and find the interviews in the Sound Recordings. Information about the Lands' End contest and photographs of the winning quilts with accompanying notes can be found in the special presentation, The Lands' End All-American Quilt Contest.
- How did catalogs and magazines such as Sears Roebuck and Mountain Mist change quilting?
- What evidence can you find of an expanding economy and modern culture in the differences between the Blue Ridge quilters and the Lands' End quilters?
- What materials, designs, and techniques did each group of women use?
- What were their motivations for quilting? What were their influences?
- How were their quilts used? Were they sold? For how much money?
- How much variety of materials, designs, motivations, and styles was there among each group of quilters?
3) The Quilting Revival
The Lands' End contests and their prize-winning quilts reflect a quilting revival that occurred in the late twentieth century. Learn about this revival by reading the special presentations, Blue Ridge Quiltmaking in the Late Twentieth Century, Speaking of Quilts: Voices from the Late Twentieth Century and The Lands' End All-American Quilt Contest, and by analyzing the photographs of the winning quilts and their accompanying notes, which are indexed by year at the bottom of this last presentation.
Browsing these photographs and notes and comparing them with the materials on the Blue Ridge quilters, students will see that the revival represented a widespread, national interest in quilting. The photographs and notes reveal a variety of techniques, styles, subject matter, motivations, and backgrounds. Searching on guild, class and lecture will locate numerous references to a national community of professional quilters. How else would you characterize the quilting revival as reflected by this material? How is the quilting of this revival different from that of the Blue Ridge quilters?
Nearly all of the quilters represented in this collection are women. In their explanations of why they quilt, they reveal much about women's lifestyles and how they have changed with time. Ask students to investigate this topic of why women quilted using the statements of motivations from the Subject Index. They can use the questions below to analyze the similarities and differences among these motivations and draw their own conclusions about women's lifestyles.
I started this quilt when my son was sent to Iraq -- during deployment for the Gulf War. As events developed and grew more dangerous, I worked longer hours, added more hand quilting, made the stitches tinier and tinier . . . I gave it to him for a wedding present and told him how and when it came to be made (I think I would have gone mad had I not had my quilting to keep me straight). It has always been relaxing. This time it was my salvation. My son never knew at the time just how worried I was and it was a chance (my giving him the quilt) for us both to let go of those feelings. -- 1992 Montana State Winner
I quilt and teach quilting as my job. Contests make students aware of your work. I enter them often as advertisement of classes. -- 1994 Illinois State Winner
- What are some of the reasons that these women quilted?
- What do these reasons suggest about what women value?
- What do they suggest about women's activities and roles in families and society?
- What do they suggest about women's personal lives, professional lives, creative lives, families, communities, modes of expression?
- How are the motivations of the Blue Ridge quilters and the Lands' End quilters different? How are they the same?
- What does this suggest about how women's lives and perceptions of women have changed with time?
- What do the quilts themselves suggest about these aspects of women's lives and how they have changed with time?
5) Quilting and the Emergence of an Art Form
One may appreciate the cultural significance of quilting and its evolution by comparing the work and statements of the Blue Ridge quilters with those of the Lands' End quilters. A good place to start is the special presentations. From there, students can sample the motivations listed in the Subject Index, to help them see the variety of functions quilting has played, such as creative expression, socialization, commemoration, income, charity, personal satisfaction, and warmth. Then, have them browse the images and statements by both groups of quilters and answer the questions below.
- What motivations do the two groups of quilters share? What common functions do their quilts serve?
- What motivations and functions are unique to each group?
- What does this suggest about the change in how quilting has been done, why it has been done, and how it has been regarded?
- How have the quilts themselves changed with time? What do these changes suggest about changes in quilting and its reputation?
- What does the existence of national quilting contests suggest about quilting in the late twentieth century? Were there contests in the first half of the century? What were they like?
- What do the titles on the quilts suggest about changes in quilting?
- Do you see evidence of change within the time period of the Lands' End contests, from 1992 to 1996?
In answering these questions, students will find evidence of an increasing sense of quilting as an art form in the Lands' End quilters' statements and work. Examples may be found by browsing the Lands' End photographs and by searching on class, lecture, workshop, and art.
Has being a winner in the Land's End contest made a difference in your life? Has it changed the way you look at your work as a quilt maker? "The development of my resume of quilt shows and contests has led to acceptance for 2 solo quilt shows and development of myself as a serious quilt artist." -- 1996 Alaska State Winner; Arctic Lava
- Did the Blue Ridge quilters consider their quilting to be an art form? What about their mothers and grandmothers?
- Does someone need to consider their work to be an art form for it to actually be one?
- What is the difference between art and craft?
- What makes something an art form? The motives of the creator? The audience of the work? The price of the work? The professional reputation of the creator? The community in which the creator works? National or wide-spread recognition of an art form? The subject, style, or technique of the art work?
Quilts and Quiltmaking in America 1978-1996 provides the opportunity for students to learn historical thinking skills through unique activities adaptable to multiple age groups. The many changes documented in this collection foster chronological thinking, while the depth of its materials on quilting support a fun activity in which students can gain and demonstrate an understanding of this topic by planning a museum or exhibit. Other activities foster research, analysis, and interpretation skills.
Because of its two components, this collection is an excellent resource for understanding change through time. Younger students can be guided through the collection to understand how quilting changed from the time of the Blue Ridge quilters to that of the Lands' End quilters. They can test their understanding by matching images of quilts with the two groups of quilters and their respective time periods.
Older students can discuss some of the larger changes, such as changes in the economy, in culture, in the arts, and in perceptions of women that might have affected changes in quilting. They can also use the following questions to form a more sophisticated understanding of change through analysis.
- What are the best indications of whether a quilt was made by the Blue Ridge quilters or the Lands' End quilters?
- What does this tell you about the kinds of changes that took place in quilting and their causes?
- Many of the quilts are hard to match with a time period. Why is this? What does this contribute to your understanding of change and of quilting?
- Do you think that there will be many changes in quilting in the future? Why or why not? If so, what might those changes be?
- What has not changed in quilting? Why do you think that is?
As outlined in the U.S. History section, students can use this collection to gain a thorough understanding of quilting. Students can establish and demonstrate their understanding of this multi-faceted topic through an activity in which they are asked to plan a museum or exhibit on quilting. What aspects of quilting do they want to feature? The technical aspects of how quilts are made? The backgrounds of quilters and their motivations? The symbolism of quilts? The history of traditional quilting? Its revival in the late twentieth century? What information does the museum audience need in order to understand these topics? How will this information be presented? In demonstrations? Photographs? Film? Text? Interviews? Web pages? How could students find and create these materials?
Historical Analysis and Interpretation
This collection can be used to study three different types of analysis and interpretation. First, many of the Lands' End quilts such as these, have notes that explain the quilters' intentions and can help one learn to recognize volition and meaning in visual work. Refer students to some of these quilts and ask them to explain how the quilter tried to express certain ideas or fulfill certain goals through her quilt. Then, ask students to look at some quilts without notes and attempt an interpretation of what the quilter was trying to communicate or accomplish.
In addition to the creator's intentions, a quilt can also express information about the time period in which it was made. Students can learn to access this information with the following questions:
- What themes or topics recur in the Lands' End quilts and notes?
- What does this suggest about what people were concerned with at the time these quilts were made?
- What do the materials, techniques, and subject matter suggest about America at this time, its economy, politics, culture, and arts community?
- What do the materials, techniques, and subject matter of the Blue Ridge quilts suggest about their creators and the time period in which they lived?
Finally, the special presentation, Speaking of Quilts: Voices from the Late 20th Century offers an interpretation of the entire collection. How does this interpretation suggest we look at and understand the collection's materials? Do you agree with this interpretation? How else might one interpret this collection? In what ways is the collection itself an interpretation of its materials? How else might you have presented these materials?
Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making
The quilting revival occurred at the same time as what cultural critics have identified as a national heritage movement, or mood of nostalgia, in the late twentieth century. This movement expressed a renewed interest in American history and traditions in the mass commercialization of them. This commercialization took a variety of forms, from the sale of collectibles to history-related tourism and entertainment.
Cultural critics have suggested possible causes of this movement. One idea is that people of the late twentieth century were attempting, through this commercialization, to create the meaningful connections with the past that they lacked in an age of rapid change. A second idea is that people were reacting against industrialization and idealizing the pre-industrial era as a simpler time. Consequences of the movement include, on the one hand, an increased interest in and accessibility to history and, on the other hand, an oversimplification and vulgarization of it.
Examining the Lands' End materials with the following questions, students can determine whether they think the quilting revival might have been part of this movement and form their own opinions about representations of history.
- Are many of the Lands' End quilts about history, heritage, or tradition? What can you find out by searching on these words?
- Do you think quilts have become a form of the commercialization of history and tradition? What do the quilters' motivations tell you about this?
- Do you find evidence in the quilters' notes that either of the two possible causes mentioned above motivated or influenced them?
- Do you feel that the Lands' End quilts reflect an oversimplification or vulgarization of history? Why or why not?
- What do you think are the pros and cons of commercializing history?
- Why might quilting be such a popular medium for expressing ideas about history and tradition? What other topics are widely represented in the quilts?
Historical Research Capabilities
As explained in the U.S. History section, this collection provides a view of rural life in the Appalachian region during the early twentieth century. By examining the materials related to the Blue Ridge quilters, students can find clues and create questions with which to do further research into this topic. The collection's photographs and biographies of the Blue Ridge quilters are a good place to start. Students will naturally want to know more about the stories of which these materials are just a part.
Their research may take them to other American Memory collections, such as FSA/OWI Photographs, 1935-1945, which depicts life in this and similar regions with photographs of mountain farms and families, found by searching on Appalachian, Shenandoah National Park, and Blue Ridge Mountains. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 contains several interviews from North Carolina that may also be used to enhance students' understanding of this topic.
Arts & Humanities
In addition to providing the basis for a number of creative writing projects, Quilts and Quiltmaking in America 1978-1996 also supports some more unique projects. For example, the collection's kids quilts provide examples with which teachers can create their own classroom quilt projects. Also, by taking on the role of a quilt contest judge, students can better understand visual art and its value. Finally, the collection can be used to teach symbolism.
The winning quilts from the 1996 Lands' End contest include nine kids' quilts, created by students, their teachers, and sometimes other adults from their schools and communities. Search on kids quilts for photographs of these nine quilts and their accompanying notes.
In the notes, teachers celebrate the way these projects created a sense of community, cooperation, and pride, while fostering a variety of skills from drawing and sewing to math. The quilts also added to and often provided the locus point for explorations of a variety of themes such as non-violence, westward expansion, state pride, and black history. Teachers can follow and synthesize any of these examples to create a quilt project in their own schools and classrooms.
Quiltmaking helps each class form strong community bonds. Parents, teachers, and children all work together -- learning more about one another, working together, teaching and learning and laughing. -- Jo Noonan, Arbor Montessori School, 1996 Kids Quilt; Wild in the Garden
While the Lands' End winners' notes provide a lot of information about what they hoped to accomplish through their quilts, there is no information about why the judges selected these quilts as winners. By taking on the role of a Lands' End contest judge, students can learn about art and how to evaluate it. Present students with the winning quilts from one of the three contests represented in the collection, and tell them that they must choose one winner from among them. Remind them that the contest is called the "All-American Quilt Contest", and that it is sponsored by Coming Home, a division of Lands' End, and by Good Housekeeping. The theme of the contest is "If Quilts Could Talk." Students can use the following questions to help them choose a winner. When they've finished, have them share and explain their choices with each other in a class discussion.
- As a judge, what aspects of the quilts are you going to consider in your evaluation? Some aspects might include: the technical skill demonstrated; the use of color; the difficulty of the pattern; the originality of the pattern or subject matter; the meaning or message of the quilt; the authenticity of the quilt.
- Which of these factors will you value most highly? Why?
- What impact will the contest name and theme have upon your decision?
- Does the winning quilt need to express "Americaness"? What does it mean to be American?
- Will the nature of the sponsors of this contest impact your decision at all?
The quilts in this collection afford an opportunity for students to learn about symbolism. Most of the Lands' End quilts are symbolic in some way, from their subject matter to their patterns, fabrics, and colors. Titles are often indicative of symbolic meaning, and the notes of some quilts such as these, will include the quilters' explanations of their symbolism. Searching on symbol locates only one quilt, so browsing the quilts and their notes is the best way to identify helpful quilts for this activity. After studying some examples, a class can have a discussion based on the following questions:
- What ideas and feelings were the quilters trying to express in their symbolism?
- What are the meanings of symbols based upon? Why, for example, would yellow symbolize age?
- Where else do you find symbols in your daily life? In books, commercials, movies, music? Which one of these do you think is most like quilts?
- In the special presentation, Speaking of Quilts: Voices from the Late Twentieth Century, the author writes of quilting itself as a symbol of ". . . what we value about ourselves and our national history." What does she mean by this?
- What other things can quilting symbolize?
- Are some of these meanings reflected in any of the Lands' End quilts?
Students can demonstrate what they've learned by creating a quilt or drawing of their own in which they use color, patterns, or objects to express certain ideas or feelings symbolically. Younger students can make self-portraits, while older students can tell a story or convey an event through a more sophisticated use of symbolism. Finally, students might enjoy reading about how quilt patterns may have been used to make secret, symbolic communications on the underground railroad in Hidden in Plain View by Jacqueline Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard.
The materials of this collection can provide inspiration for several kinds of creative writing. Visually oriented students can draw inspiration for short stories from the photographs of quilts and quilters. A pictorial quilt might provide the setting or plot for a story, while more abstract quilts might inspire a poem. Other students may particularly enjoy listening to the interviews of the Blue Ridge quilters for inspiration. From these sound recordings, one might write a short story or character sketch, drawing on the dialects, personalities, and biographies of the quilters.
Students can practice their listening and writing skills as well as reading comprehension by writing instructions for quiltmaking based on the collection's materials. This exercise will be most effective with students who are not already familiar with quilting. The most helpful materials include the sound recordings (with their transcriptions) of the Blue Ridge quilters and the glossary. Other materials are indexed by subject under headings such as Counterpanes, Lining, Marking, and Learning to make quilts. Still others can be found by searching on some of the words from the glossary, such as backing, binding, frame, and crazy. Finally, some of the photographs will also make the quiltmaking process more concrete. Ask students, after studying some of these materials, to write basic instructions for making a quilt.