Saturday, May 5, 2018

Historians At Quilt Museums Debunk Some Myths Surrounding Some Beloved Textiles

By Cynthia Wagner


If you have ever been lucky enough to own a quilt handed down to you from a grandmother, great grandmother, or someone even farther back in your family tree, you understand how fascinating and valued they are. Over the years many myths have grown up around this quintessentially American craft. Quilt museums have researched some of the most popular with some surprising results.

Antique quilts, in many ways, are window into the country's beginnings. We have ideas about our ancestors in the colonies sewing together scraps of material to create bed covers for their families. We see this as a sign of their thriftiness. Some people believe quilters designed pieces with secret messages for runaway slaves to help them get to a safe haven using the Underground Railroad.

Scrap bags, where housewives keep bits of cloth leftover from sewing projects, may be a modern myth. This fits in with our view of colonists who had to use ingenuity and hard work to create everyday objects. The fact is that most of these early quilts were made from whole cloth. It was not your everyday fabric either. These quilts came from expensive imported fabric instead of scraps. Quilting from scraps didn't come into the picture until after the Industrial Revolution.

It is commonly believed that colonial women made quilts. This fits our picture of Americans with limited resources but plenty of resilience. Historians have found this to be fairly rare. In colonial times, textiles were expensive commodities. It was only after industry technology made mass produced cloth affordable that cutting up material and sewing it back together made economic sense.

Another myth still active today, is that quilting is a skill that only interests women. Even feminists have taken the art of quilting and pointed out the ways in which it demonstrates the ingenuity and practicality of early American women. The fact is that there are a number of extremely talented male quilt designers and professional quilters. They have work hanging in museums just like their female counterparts do.

Many believe quilting is an exclusively American craft. American quilting is distinctive and has characteristics that make it unique. There are designs early American quilters borrowed from England and France though. One of them is the mosaic patchwork pattern many quilters still use today. Mongolia is the site of some of the earliest quilted textiles. They have been traced back to the first century.

One of the most persistent myths surrounding the American quilting phenomenon is that it played a powerful part in the Underground Railroad. The belief is that quilters sewed code into their creations to guide fugitive slaves to safe havens along the their way to freedom. There seems to be no real evidence of this. Historians say it's most likely a folk tale derived from a particular family.

Quilts become family treasures. They have a history all their own. The most famous myths are sometimes true and sometimes not. Either way families will continue to cherish quilts and pass them on to new generations.




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