The quilting bee then and now

The Quilting Frolic








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.

Sherwood Smith’s ebooks



The quilting bee then and now — 30 Comments

  1. I was going to say there are quilting bees in my area, but you already figured out they still exist.
    Ha on Princess phones. Much talked about when they appeared, but I didn’t pick up on the bedroom part.
    Remember party lines?

  2. If you go to an SF con, there may be a “stitch and bitch” which is all about — well, textile work, but has the same approach.

    • If you don’t go to SF cons, there are still stitch’n’bitch gatherings around the world; there was one large enough in the Phoenix area that some of the towns surrounding Phx, like Chandler where I lived, had their own sizable group. The one I go to here in EIndhoven, Netherlands, gets from around 8-20 people every two weeks. Even in Taipei we had a Ravelry forum and had at least one or two gatherings, though not a regular one. There are some exceptions (like charity or knitting graffiti projects) but in general the difference between a knitting circle and a quilting bee is that each knitter works on her own projects. But the social aspect is much the same. What I like about my local one is that it’s open to anyone who does handiwork – some knit, some crochet and a few embroider, and we range from 20s to 60s. Occasionally passers-by come chat, and older women will talk about being taught to knit in school (which was still done here in the Netherlands until fairly recently).

  3. There are also quilting exchanges (not sure of the right terminology) facilitated by the online quilting forums. Typically, each quilter will make a number of identical blocks, then send them around to the others in the group; everyone then makes a quilt out of their share of the blocks. Sometimes there’s a central coordinator, sometimes it’s more of a round-robin arrangement. About 15 years ago, when I was still reading rec.crafts.textiles.quilting, I participated in an X-Files quilt exchange:

      • An online mailing list I was on did that at about the same time, for a member’s new baby–we were all horse people (still are; the new guy belongs to one of them), so the blocks had horse themes. I’ll have to ask if the quilt still exists.

        It was our way of celebrating the birth, and sharing friendship. All done online, in two countries. I love the way the old and the new combined to make a useful and beautiful gift.

  4. My mom quilted when I was growing up. In the south (in those days), quilters got together more to exchange quilting scraps and talk about patterns and techniques than anything else, though I’m sure, knowing my mom and her friends, there was probably gossip, too, LOL. The county fair was another place they got together.

    Also, it was common, when some tragedy befell a friend (mostly a fellow church-goer), they’d each make up a square that somehow represented them and they’d all get together to fashion them into a quilt as a form of comfort to the person in distress.

  5. I think book groups (where the discussion will touch on the book, but often spends time on the doings of kids and town happenings) and even committee meetings can have a similar purpose–in terms of getting people caught up and in the loop about things that maybe have nothing to do with the ostensible purpose of the meeting but are nevertheless important for the community in question. So that’s one side of it.

    The other is, it’s **definitely** more fun to do a tedious job with a group of people–it can turn the tedious job into a pleasure.

    • Very true on both accounts. I know my Jane Austen book group ends up talking on a wild variety of subjects after our book talk is done. (And during, as Austen’s work can lead in so many directions.)

  6. Quilts for ‘everyday’ were thriftily made with scraps, plus ‘found’ fabrics such as flour sacking. Another whole separate universe is devoted to ‘company’ quilts, which could be very elaborate and tended to use new (or mostly new) fabrics. The elaborate showpiece counterpanes that you see in historic homes are of this type; usually they were the masterpiece of a superb needlewoman and the very essence of conspicuous consumption. (Look at us! We are so well off that our very best sewer, instead of devoting her energies to making clothing and socks for us, can dedicate fifteen years of her life to crocheting this huge bedspread out of white sewing thread, which you now get to sleep under!)

    Go over to to see a ginormous, and very powerful, needlework forum. (Proof: to celebrate the Olympics, Ravelry usually has its own Olympics, which involves choosing a project to knit or crochet while sitting in front of the TV watching the Games. The Olympics people in London filed suit, claiming trademark infringement. The outcry was such that they had to back down and apologize.)

    In addition to these labyrinthine online forums, there are plenty of needlework groups who meet in person. I started the SF one — the Knitting Side of the Force. The sole qualification is that you take your knitting to cons; we have no agenda, no activities, and no other outlet. They actually had a panel for us, at Worldcon last year. It was so mobbed that we ran out of chairs and had to pack people onto the floor.

    • Apologize, not back down. Ravelry ended up renaming the event the Ravellenic Games. (And I did finish my shawl in time, thus medaling in three ‘events’: Shawl Sailing, Lace Longjump, and One-Skein Sprint).

  7. Quilting bees, corn huskings, barn raisings and even haying — communal activities that still went on when I was a little girl out there in homesteading landia.

    Quilting and knitting nights still go on there, but generally people tend to play cards in the winter. Card games include men, which the quilting and knitting do not, and neither do the book clubs. In that part of the world men aren’t taking up the metrosexual lifestyle yet.

    I’ve got some of my great grandmother’s, grandmother’s and mom’s quilts. I don’t use them though.

    Love, C.

    Love, C.

  8. Another thought, on your great-grandmother’s quilt. Take it to a textile conserver, and have it stored properly, to prevent more deterioration. If you have the money and will, it might be better to pay to have it restored now, rather than to hope that some future quilter will be born to take up the work. It may be too difficult to restore it to useable life, and may be better to frame it for display. A good compromise might be to commission a brand-new quilt, in the exact same pattern with similar-looking (but modern and washable) fabrics, which you could then use.

    • Yeah, that may happen after the debt load gets under five figures, (and the enormous load of broken things ahead of it get fixed) but until then, it sits in its box in the closet.

  9. I have at least four quilts which my grandmother made. In her sixties, she had to quit quilting because she hurt her hand (is all I recall of it). I remember the quilting frame she had. One of the quilts is precious to me but I still use it — pieces of my baby dresses are pieced into it. To give you an idea of the time frame on those — I was born in 1956.

  10. Quilting seems like such a simple thing, and yet it touches on so many aspects of our humanity. The quilting bee is rooted in the human ability to cooperate, a quality many biologists and anthropologists are beginning to consider innate and part of what led to our evolution. It’s also a social event, and we are very social creatures. It’s an outlet for creativity, even if all you have is scraps. People make them now for show or as memorials, but they were once a very necessary item in a household, making them a form of creating beauty in necessary objects (as with pottery and other objects for daily use). And they provide a lot of material for women’s history. There’s quite a bit of history in African American quilting, too, not to mention beauty.

  11. I’ve been part of Ravelry for the last few years, and through that I found local meetups for knitters, and I ended up part of a spinning guild, and we have a monthly spin-in. At both my groups, we share exactly the same sorts of conversations, husbands, drs, children, illnesses going around, and dealing with modern problems and solutions to them. It’s an important part of our lives, as even though many have professional lives, the need to connect and discuss things from the silly to serious still exists, and for some of the other mothers, it might be the only community they have access to on a regular basis, especially for stay at home moms. The sheer busyness of people’s schedule makes it hard to find that time to connect.

  12. Lovely post!

    Quilting bees and stitch-n-bitches are alive and kicking in Australia too. Many health and community centres run them, as do many fabric shops (which also teach workshops), building community in the same way that indie bookshops do through author visits and book launches.

    I have a group of female friends, many of whom I have known since high school or university, who meet once a fortnight to sew and talk. Admittedly sometimes the sewing bags don’t even get opened, but it’s a lovely chance to work on something by hand and share our projects back and forth.

  13. I remember when I was young, before my grandmother died, going with her and my mother and sisters to her quilting bee. It was simply amazing. They didn’t limit themselves solely to quilts – they also did quite a bit of embroidery. My grandmother made quilts for each grandchild as well, and we still have ours. Since my mother was the only daughter, she also got the lion’s share of embroidery (some beautiful tablecloths for Jewish Holidays and small wall hangings), and my grandmother’s first quilt for the grandchildren (for my sister, as it were). It was so nice, my grandfather refused to let her bestow it on a child, and had it hung up in their house. The entire experience was fascinating, and every so often (especially when we take our the special tablecloths) I remember it and my grandmother.

  14. “Sure enough, I found plenty about tapestry quilts. Not surprising, they are mostly a modern phenomenon,”

    You might enjoy this book:

    Wrapped in Glory: Figurative Quilts & Bedcovers 1700-1900.

    Many of these quilts, which all have human figures on them, seem tapestry-like to me. There seem to be quite a few reasonably priced copies on Amazon right now, or you can have a look at mine the next time you visit.