The Origins of Quilting

Mary Ellen Cummings

In the book A People and Their Quilts, author John Rice Irwin introduces us to Appalachian quilters from pioneering days to the early 1980’s. He traveled extensively in Tennessee and Kentucky meeting quilters and descendants of quilters. He saw log homes, still in use, of some of the early quilters. He found quilts dating to the 1700s. Early quilts were often poorly constructed of drab colored fabric left over from sewing or from used clothing.

"Dry goods" were scarce and each yard of cloth had to serve in many ways. Quilts had to be used over and over; their first duty being for warmth—not beauty. As a quilt aged it took on new life, as filling for another quilt, jackets for men and boys, petticoats for girls, crib quilts, covers for potatoes and apples, a rug on dirt floors, and finally bed for the family dogs. I have seen old quilts stuffed into cracks of company-owned, poorly constructed houses for coal miners (1930s) and I’m sure pioneering families had to do the same.

In his book, Mr. Irwin negates the theory that early quilters held "Quilting Bees." However, many quilt historians suggest such affairs were perhaps the only social event early settlers had. Mr. Irwin bases his remarks on the fact that pioneers lived too far apart to meet for quilt making.

However, it is a well established fact that early settlers often moved west as extended family units. There were sometimes three or four generations traveling together and establishing homesteads near one another, each family helping the others with barn raisings, cropping, and birthing. So, why not quilting bees?

In The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt in America, Carrie A. Hall says "...during the close confinement of long winter days, the women folk...spent their spare time piecing and patching quilts." However, "...there was no room to ‘put up’ a quilt. Spring was a time for planting, cleaning and Quilting Bees."

Read other Quilting articles by Mary Ellen Cummings