Handmade Quilts Soften Edges in High-Tech Homes
I don’t know about you, but my weekly screentime hours are embarrassingly excessive. The more attention I pay to my electronic devices, the more convinced I am that we all need to surround ourselves at home with items you can’t plug in.
Homes need live plants, piles of books, original art, handknit blankets, and artisan quilts.
Alexa, can you make a quilt?
I’ve never made a quilt either, but someday I would like to. Meanwhile, I am satisfying my curiosity by reading a book on quilting and talking to serious quilters about the importance of quilts in the American home today and throughout history.
“What other craft involves making something with your hands, imbuing your style, and creating something that keeps your loved ones warm?” asks quilt designer and teacher Shannon Brinkley, of Leesburg, Va. “It’s the perfect blend of function and beauty.”
Brinkley, 36, started quilting in college. Shortly after graduating, she turned her hobby into a business. She started The Meander Quilt Guild, an online international forum where quilters gather to share techniques for the centuries-old art.
“Anyone can slap three layers of fabric together, but the fact that for centuries, women” (98 percent of quilters are women, according to the Craft Industry Alliance 2020 Survey) “have taken the time to make these items beautiful is what makes quilting so special.”
“Every quilt tells a story,” says Carissa Heckathorn, director of the Iowa Quilt Museum, and a quilter for over 30 years. “A quilt from the 1800s can tell you a lot about the woman who made it. The quilt can tell you if the woman was utilitarian, making quilts quickly from scraps to keep her family warm, repurposing old clothing because she didn’t have money to buy fabric, or if she was an affluent woman of leisure, who could afford to buy matching fabrics and had the time to stitch precisely cut appliqués.”
I try to imagine what story my quilt would tell and picture a haphazard patchwork of worn-out yoga pants held together by chewing gum and staples.
According to the alliance survey, quilting in North America is a $4.2 billion industry, with as many as 12 million quilters practicing the craft. I hope to someday become part of that statistic.
As my curiosity and appreciation for this old storytelling craft grow, I ask Brinkley and Heckathorn to tell me more:
When did quilts first come to America, and how have they evolved?
Heckathorn: The first quilts probably arrived here in the 1500s. For European colonists, quilting was a popular pastime and a way for woman to get together. Along the way, different quilt block patterns emerged to reflect women’s roles in the home as well as their religious and political views. During the Great Depression, women commonly made quilts out of feed sacks. In the 60s and 70s, we saw lots of polyester in quilts. In the 80s, quilting weight cotton became popular, and is what most quilters use today. As more tools became available, including rotary cutters with built-in rulers that simplify the cutting process, quilts became more commercial.
How do people use quilts in homes today?
Heckathorn: The importance of the quilt in the American home has changed. Pioneer women made bed quilts not because they wanted to sew, but because their families needed them for warmth. While we still use quilts for beds and cribs, we also see them as table toppers or runners, and hung as wall art, a luxury our ancestors didn’t have.
Brinkley: Although the art of quilting has been evolving for centuries, the pandemic caused the craft to progress much faster because of social media. Today quilters from all over the world are sharing their work online, inspiring new techniques, creating an artistic explosion. In many ways, quilting is in its infancy.
What are the basic types of quilts?
Brinkley: A quilt by definition is three layers of material ― a top, middle, and bottom ― sandwiched together, stitched and bound around the edges. The top is where the action is. Today the middle layer is often batting. The three main styles of quilting are piecing, where you patch together cut scraps to create a whole; appliqué, where you attach cutout fabric shapes to background fabric; and whole cloth, where the quilt top, like the bottom, is a solid piece of fabric. In this style, the design of the quilt stitch is the star.
I’ve always pictured quilters as a gaggle of gray-haired grannies coming together to gossip and sew. But clearly, more young women are embracing the centuries-old craft.
Brinkley: While many women pick up the hobby when they retire, many in my generation are getting into quilting when they start families, and their nesting instincts are strong. While we still have traditional quilters, the modern quilt movement is strong. Modern quilts often include bold colors and prints, high contrast and graphic areas of solid color.
Is it considered cheating to use a sewing machine?
Heckathorn: Today it’s assumed that if you’re a quilter, you’re using a machine. Most quilters want to make as many quilts as they can, and so use all the tools available. Hand sewing, although much admired, is rare.
What do you wish more people knew about quilting?
Heckathorn: That quilts are for everyone, whether you buy them, inherit them, or make them. Especially in today’s high-tech society, the value of handmade art gains importance.
Brinkley: That when you start, it seems like you need to follow lots of rules and be precise. Let go of perfection. The quilt police aren’t going to come by and say, “It needs to be done like this.” You don’t have to follow a pattern. Just follow your heart.
Until I have time to try my hand at quilting, I think I will follow my heart to the nearest quilt shop and see what’s for sale.
CAPTION: Want a quilt? ― If you’re not ready to try your hand at quilting, you can often find handcrafted quilts for sale at quilt museums. Quilts pictured here are for sale at the Iowa Quilt Museum gift shop. You can also ask your city’s quilting guild where their members sell their work, or look on Etsy. Photo courtesy of the Iowa Quilt Museum.