A few days ago, I was visiting a textile artist friend, looking at her quilting projects. All I know about quilting is what I’ve read in published versions of pioneer women diaries.
The importance of the quilting bee cannot be stressed enough — for this was not merely an opportunity for a lot of women to make a long, tedious task go quicker, it was a chance to socialize. In several of these diaries, I recall entries in which women walked miles and miles across rough country, in Midwestern weather, which is seldom balmy, lugging a basket of carefully hoarded scraps. These scraps would be added to the pool, and pieced together with others’ scraps in order to make up a quilt.
It occurred to me while reading that the socialization aspect was at least as important as the material. Even though the women themselves might be abashed, and consider their quilting bees nothing more than a chance to guess gossip while the needles were being plied, when the more literate of the diarists listed the topics, it became clear that these women, most of them living such isolated lives, were exchanging vital medical information, and data on family management: not only how to doctor your family, but what amounted to psychological advice, as well as tips and tricks in household management and cookery. The pioneers apparently could get pretty frank, the necessity for clear information trumping 19th-century reticence.
While they were talking, the women sat around the frame in a circle, allocating tasks as they sewed. As I listened to my friend talking about how quilts are made now, and demonstrating the amazing variety of stitchwork possibilities that the new sewing machines offer, I was admiring the scrumptious fabrics, the gorgeous patterns, and yet thinking about whether or not today’s quilters miss the quilting bee. They are able to make an entire quilt in what was probably the same amount of time it took a group to make one back in the old days. And these new ones can’t help but be far prettier.
When I got home, I was so impressed by what I had seen of my friend’s projects that I went online to look at quilting art, especially tapestry quilts, as my own interests tend toward the history of tapestry making.
Sure enough, I found plenty about tapestry quilts. Not surprising, they are mostly a modern phenomenon, as modern life in places like the United States enables us to get fairly cheap bedding for everyday use, reserving quilts for special occasions, guest rooms, “best linens,” and of course display.
There are not many examples of old tapestry quilts, but again I was not surprised. Quilts, as I understand them, were pieced together out of the scrips and scraps of worn out fabrics that could not be used for any other purpose, but perhaps were too pretty to be relegated to scrub rags or diapers.
I myself have a quilt that is, alas, tattered and frail. Part of the problem is that my great-grandmother used silk, but there are also pieces of fabric that are clearly very worn, probably parts of beloved dresses during the early 20th century. My mom was going to fix it, as she used to quilt while watching TV, but arthritis has forced her to retire from quilting–as it prevents me from taking it up. I hope someone in the next generation will want to refurbish this family heirloom.
But while I was searching, Google kept pointing me to various forums for quilters. When I started looking at these, I discovered that the quilting bee is not gone. That is, these quilters are not walking past miles of corn and wheat to get together for a quilting bee and barn-raising, but they are getting together at all kinds of conventions, and meanwhile there is the daily discourse in these online forums covering an astonishing array of questions. The quilters are still turning to one another for advice, support, and inquiry on the entire spectrum of life.
This came to mind again a few days later, when I was showing a houseguest my cherished volumes of The Spectator. As you can see from the Wikipedia article, it did not make its publishers wealthy, as it was mostly being read in the coffee houses. Its 3000 copies were estimated to have been read by 60,000 people. In nearly every sense, it was like what we would call now a daily blog. We are not paying to read most of the blogs we take in, but we are influenced by what we read. Spectator’s influence was incalculable; we know that Jane Austen, 100 years later, read it as she refers to it in her writings.
Like daily blogs, the subjects varied. There are various satires about behavior in persons of high and low degree. There are political and theological and sociological entries, as well as celebrity gossip, thinly disguised. The entry about how to deal with accusations of witchcraft, published on Saturday, July 14, 1711, could be applicable now. A few weeks later, on Thursday, July 26, 1711, there is a total takedown of the extremes of female fashion — in this case the appearance of huge hoop skirts.
Nothing new or surprising about these observations, I am aware. For one thing it is too hot! It just occurred to me how interesting it is that no matter how many sophisticated high-tech inventions come along, we humans tend to reuse them in the same patterns.