I don’t know about you guys, but my weekly screen time is embarrassingly exaggerated. The more I pay attention to my electronic devices, the more convinced I am that we should surround ourselves with stuff you can’t connect. Homes need live plants, stacks of books, original art, hand-knitted blankets, and craft quilts.
Alexa, can you make a quilt?
I’ve never made a quilt either, but I satisfy my curiosity by talking to serious quilters about the importance of needlework in the American home.
“What other craft involves making something that keeps your loved ones warm?” asks quilt designer and teacher Shannon Brinkley of Leesburg, Virginia. “It’s the perfect blend of function and beauty.”
“Every quilt tells a story,” says Carissa Heckathorn, director of the Iowa Quilt Museum and quilter for more than 30 years. “A 19th century quilt can tell you a lot about the woman who made it. The quilt can tell you if the woman was a utilitarian, quickly making quilts from scraps to keep her family warm, reusing old clothes because she had no money to buy fabric, or if she was a wealthy casual woman who could afford to buy matching fabrics and had the time to sew precisely cut appliqués.”
Trying to imagine the story my quilt would tell, I imagine a haphazard patchwork of threadbare yoga pants held together by gum and staples.
According to a 2020 Craft Industry Alliance survey, quilting in North America is a $4.2 billion industry, with as many as 12 million quilters — 98 percent of them women — practicing the craft. So I asked Brinkley and Heckathorn to tell me more.
Q: When did quilts first come to America and how did they evolve?
Hekathorn: The first quilts probably arrived here in the 1500s. For European settlers, quilting was a popular pastime and a way for women to come together. Various quilt block patterns emerged to reflect the role of women in the home and their religious and political views. During the Great Depression, women used to make quilts from feed bags. In the 60s and 70s we saw a lot of polyester in quilts. Quilt weight cotton became popular in the ’80s and that’s 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.
Q: How do people today use quilts in homes?
Hekathorn: 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. Although we still use quilts for beds and cribs, we also see them as tablecloths or runners, and hung as wall art, a luxury our ancestors did not have.
Brinkley: While the art of quilting has been evolving for centuries, the pandemic allowed the craft to progress much more quickly thanks to social media. Today, quilters from all over the world share their work online, inspiring new techniques and creating an artistic explosion.
Q: What are the basic types of quilts?
Brinkley: A quilt, by definition, is three layers of fabric — a top, center, and bottom — clamped 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 patchwork, where you stick cut pieces together to make a whole; application, where you attach cut-out fabric shapes to background fabric; and whole fabric, where the quilt top, like the bottom, is a solid piece of fabric. In this style, the quilt stitch design is the star.
Q: I’ve always pictured quilters as a bunch of gray-haired grannies getting together to gossip and sew. But it’s clear that more young women are embracing the age-old craft.
Brinkley: While many women take up the hobby again when they retire, many of my generation start quilting when they start a family, and their nesting instincts are strong. Modern quilts often feature bold colors and prints, high contrast, and solid color graphic areas.
Q: Is it considered cheating to use a sewing machine?
Hekathorn: Today it is believed that if you are a quilter you use a machine. Most quilters want to make as many quilts as possible and therefore use all available tools. Hand sewing, though much admired, is rare.
Q: What do you wish more people knew about quilting?
Hekathorn: That quilts are for everyone, whether you buy, inherit or make them. Especially in today’s high-tech society, the value of handmade art is gaining in importance.
Brinkley: That when you start, it seems like you have a lot of rules to follow and be precise. Let go of perfection. The quilting police don’t come by and say, “It has to be done this way.” You don’t have to follow a pattern. Just follow your heart.