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Notes on Farm Quilts

I love quilts for their mix of fabrics, handwork, and the stories they hold. But mostly because they express the endless creativity and talent of everyday women. America has many quilting traditions - Colonial, Amish, Mormon, Pennsylvania Dutch, Gee’s Bend, Native Peoples.... I am most familiar with farm quilts (or feed sack quilts), because they are the type most commonly found through dealers in the New England.

This charming quilt is typical of those made with feed sacks in Depression Era America, though they were made through the 1940s. The invention of the sewing machine in 1846 slowly replaced heavy barrels with cloth sacks for the shipping and storage of grain, fertilizer and seed. 

Mills in the northeast made canvas sacks stamped with previous barrel measurements and mill names. As newly invented synthetic fibers like rayon became popular for dresses and undergarments, cotton prices dropped. By the mid 20s, colorfully printed cotton replaced barrel-marked sacks, as the prints found second life as affordable fabric for clothing. Chicken farmers sold the sacks as a side business, when preserving supplies was important until after WWII. One large sack made a child’s shirt; three made a dress. Scraps went to handsome quilts like this one.

Quilting - layering a soft batting between cloth, and securing it with channel stitches - has been used since the 12th Century, when Crusaders wore aketons (or gambersons), padded garments to be worn under heavy armor. In time this became the doublet, worn by men until the 1600s, and a feature of women’s clothing as well. Asian and North Africans also have a long, long history of quilting.


The rarest - oldest - quilts in museum collections include the Tristan Quilt (Sicily 1360), and the Rajah Quilt (Australia 1841).

Today, we think of quilts as a homey patchwork (or blocks) of scraps made by women in rural communities. But the earliest American quilts featured embroidery and stitch-work or appliqué rather than patches. Time-consuming needle work was a luxury enjoyed in leisure by the wealthiest early American woman, such as the makers of famed Baltimore Album quilts.

Baltimore Album Quilt

In fact, “whole cloth” quilts, rather than the more familiar block quilts, were popular until the 1840s, when innovations fueled by the Industrial Revolution meant cloth in wide varieties of print became affordable available. Rural women no longer needed to spend time spinning and weaving, and those hands turned to quilting. By the 1850s, Singer sewing machines were sold on installment, and home-sewing became common in the next decades. Often the blocks would be machine stitched, and the quilting done by hand. From the 19th Century on, the variety of block patterns became kaleidoscopic, including Bow Tie, Back Porch and Radiant Splendor. Magazine’s like Godey’s Lady’s Book published patterns, and women shared these patterns along with personal or family designs. Quilting visits from house to house, town to town, county to county, and quilting bees - bees of any kind were a party - became cornerstones of American life.

Quilts tell our stories. They are specific to their region and their time. Somehow, they communicate. They have been made to raise funds for abolition, and perhaps even to communicate routes on the Underground Railroad. They have kept communities together, kept them warm, and been passed through generations. 

I love them!


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