Quilts and Cultural Values: Gender, Race and Social Class by Laurel Horton


First published in the British Quilt Study Group journal ‘Quilt Studies’ vol 6, in 2004, we offer a rare opportunity to read this article by American quilter and quilt historian Laurel Horton, and gain an insight into the kinds of work pursued by BQSG.

In 1976, I was a graduate student in the Folklore Curriculum at the University of North Carolina, and I had decided to write my thesis on quilts in a particular area of the state[1]. I visited the small local historical museum, and filled out rudimentary data sheets on the quilts they had on display. While I was sitting there on the floor, I was vaguely aware that another visitor was touring the museum with a volunteer guide. They entered the room where I was; I kept on working and they went on talking. The visitor noticed an elaborate, heavily embroidered crazy quilt hanging on the wall, and mused: “Those silks haven’t held up very well. I wonder why she used such fragile fabrics to make that quilt?” And as they left the room, I heard the volunteer reply: “I don’t know. I guess it was all she had”.

Back in 1976, there was little authoritative information available about quilts generally, and there certainly were no books about southern US quilts. The museum volunteer wanted to be helpful. After all, it was her job to respond to visitor’s questions. She simply allowed one widely-held, unquestioned assumption – that quilts were made by salvaging fabrics – to blind her to the contradictory visual evidence that this particular quilt was made of expensive materials.

It is easy to be amused by this incident. Since 1976, a great number of books and articles on quilt history and research have been published in the United States, Europe, Australia and Japan. If a museum visitor asked the same question now, we can hope that the museum could provide more authoritative interpretations through panels, labels or an informed tour guide. One way or another, the information would be available to the visitor. However, this only addresses part of the problem. In order for the information to be understood and internalized, the visitor has to be receptive. You can lead visitors to information, but you can’t make them think.


We are well aware these days of how this works with political issues and current events, especially when it involves the attitudes of other people. However, we rarely stop to look at how our own attitudes influence what we see and what we think we know. We all have certain basic assumptions about quilts that influence the way we look at them and interpret them. Each of us harbours cherished beliefs that are every bit as blinding as the volunteer’s certainty that quilts were made by necessity from scraps.

If it were possible, many of us would resolve to be more careful about how we express our beliefs. Unfortunately, our attitudes are so deeply embedded in our thought processes that we are usually not aware of them. However, it is possible, with effort, to become more observant of the way we express our beliefs to others. When we catch ourselves in the act of being knowledgeable, we can try to listen to what we are saying and to ask ourselves how we know this to be true.

Not only is this kind of self-vigilance difficult, it can also complicate your life and your work. If you are engaged in a research direction, you may realize at some point that you have questions about your original premise. Because it is so difficult to look objectively at our own work, we are more likely to be critical of other people’s research. It’s always easier to recognize the results of flawed assumptions in the work of other people than to identify the same forces operating within yourself. If we are looking for examples of the ways cultural assumptions influence the way people look at quilts, the most vulnerable targets are the pioneers, the authors of our early quilt books. When I wrote my master’s thesis in 1979, I relied on the work of early writers, such as Marie Webster, Ruth Finley, Elizabeth Hake, Mavis FitzRandolph, and Averil Colby. Although they had few published resources to guide them, I had the belief that they, being older, must certainly be wiser. I assumed, at least, that they were somehow closer to the sources of truth than later writers.

In her 1929 book, ‘Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them’, Ruth Finley wrote quite a memorable description of one particular quilt, which I quoted in my thesis:

Only a soul in desperate need of nervous outlet could have conceived and executed . . . the “Full Blown Tulip” . . . , a quilt of Pennsylvania Dutch origin. It is a perfect accomplishment from a needlework standpoint yet hideous. The ‘tulip’ block is composed of eight arrow-shaped patches of brilliant purplish red, . . . the eight petal-shaped patches inserted between the red arrows are a sickly lemon yellow. The center of each tulip is . . . homespun of the most terrifying shade of brownish green, beyond question the accident of a private dyepot. The whole is surrounded by a . . . border . . . of dazzling bright orange. This green-red-lemon-orange combination is enough to set a blind man’s teeth on edge. And yet as an example of needlecraft the quilt is a triumph.[2]

Finley used this quilt to set up a contrast between the sturdy, practical quilts of the well-educated and civic-minded New Englanders with those made in the insular, restricted communities of Pennsylvania Germans. She suggested that, for the latter group, “it may have been some unconsciously craved compensation for the drab monotony of their days that caused the women of these households” to make such quilts.[3] Clearly Finley neither shared nor accepted the aesthetic preferences of Pennsylvania German quiltmakers. She did not understand why they created such intricate patterns in such intense colour combinations, and her tirade was an attempt to provide an explanation, an answer, for herself as well as her readers.

Later collectors and writers, such as Jonathan Holstein, looked at these same Pennsylvania German quilts and found evidence, not of escape from drab monotony but of “a rich, shared, and satisfying spiritual and physical life”. He found that “their quilts reflect their gaiety of spirit”.[4] It might be interesting to compare the different sets of contemporary influences that produced these divergent interpretations. Having begun my study of quilts at the time when Holstein’s book was new, I think it is important to note that, at the time, his rejection of Finley’s negative attitude seemed definitive and correct, and I agreed. Holstein reserved his own negativity for crazy quilts, which he described as “cluttered, incoherent, . . . [and] encumbered with elaborate embroider[y]; . . . a near-sighted view of minute, sectional effect “ and a result of “the blight of Victorian decoration”.[5] I don’t know to what extent Holstein’s views reflected those of other quilt collectors of that era, but I do remember that his strongly-worded opinions put a damper on any enthusiasm I might have had for crazy quilts for several years.

A major aim of the various quilt survey projects during the past two decades has been to record factual data on large numbers of quilts, so that our generalisations could be based on physical evidence rather than on individual preferences and unsubstantiated assumptions. Quilt survey projects typically employ two documentary processes: detailed descriptions of quilts, and the collection of biographical data on quiltmakers. Both processes result in objective data that can be recorded on standardised forms, compiled and analysed.

While quilt project volunteers understand the importance of checking the boxes and filling in the blanks so that the data can be analysed and compared, they must extract the data from living people, whose natural inclination is to provide information in narrative form. Human beings are natural storytellers.  When a person describes a quilt for the first time, they may try to include a lot of details, which may or may not be in chronological order. Through repetition and influenced by the reactions of listeners, the elements of the narrative description are gradually refined and honed into a story. You can hear abbreviated versions of these stories at the ‘show-and-tell’ sessions at Quilters’ Guild meetings. In a one-on-one interview it is possible – though time-consuming – to record extended versions of these narratives by looking at a particular quilt and asking the maker to describe how they came up with the idea and carried it out. However, pity the poor quilt-project volunteer who must try to translate the elements of a narrative presentation into machine-readable format.

For historic quilts, the process is generally easier.  Easiest of all, though not necessarily satisfying, are the many quilts which were purchased by their present owners at estate auctions or at jumble sales. The factual data for one of these quilts might include the name and location of the shop and the price. In my experience, however, few collectors take notes, and even these few facts are lost to memory.

Ancestral quilts brought in by descendants offer more possibilities. When someone brings a family quilt to be documented, we ask questions. Who made it? Where did the fabrics come from? What was the purpose of this quilt? The quilt owner wants to be helpful; they do not want to appear ignorant or uncaring. So they rely on what they believe to be true. Let’s say, as a fictional example, the present owner knows that the quilt used to be in her grandmother’s house, so she gives her grandmother’s name as the quiltmaker.  Since everybody knows that quiltmaking is a salvage craft, she says that the fabrics were sewing scraps. And she once read something about a wedding quilt, so she gives the year of her grandmother’s marriage as the date the quilt was made. The quilt-project staff is pleased to have so many facts to fill in the blanks on the form. The owner later asks her aunt about the quilt. She tells her that her grandmother bought the quilt years ago at a distant estate sale, and that it had no connection with the family.

Although we can hope that such quilt-project examples are truly fictional, we may have reason to question the validity of the data we collect. But even when we collect reliable data, when we begin to write it up for exhibition or publication, we soon realize that there is much more we don’t know. And, being human, when we don’t have the information, we tend to make it up. It’s natural for humans to want to resolve ambiguity, to complete the incomplete, to fill in the gaps. When we write articles and books using basic factual data, we know we need to interpret it to make it interesting for our readers. Just as the museum volunteer felt a need to respond to the visitor’s question, we anticipate the questions our readers might ask; and we feel compelled to offer our best guess about the quiltmakers’ motivations and behaviours – to tell a good story, for we too are natural storytellers.

Part of the difficulty is that even though we may be meticulous in recording factual data about the quilt and quiltmaker, we do not have a mechanism for collecting and recording data on the non-physical aspects of quilts, that is, on the processes and contexts of their creation. Because this information either was not available or we had no way to record it, we instead make Interpretations based on intuition and guesswork, particularly in determining the motivations and design choices of the quiltmaker.

The authors and editors of contemporary quilt-project books recognize that it is not enough to provide “just the facts, ma’am”.  They know that their readers want to know what is important, distinctive and noteworthy; and they want to experience some sort of connection with the quiltmakers. As a result, we as authors sometimes fall back on the same individual judgement and ethno-centrism that permeate Finley’s description of the Full Blown Tulip quit. This results in published statements that later come back to haunt us. The following statements are from various American quilt -project books published during the last two decades. Because I want us to look at them as indicators of a general tendency rather than to engage in specific finger-pointing, these quotations are presented here anonymously:

Only [one] side . . . of this appliquéd quilt has a . . . border. Perhaps the bed was placed against the wall and only one border was required, or perhaps the young women were unsure about how to place the blocks.

The quilter may have intended that the curious asymmetrical row of half blocks at one end of the quilt be hidden by pillows.

This quilt . . . raises the possibility that the quilter created it based on her own family tree. If so, the eight leaves could represent her eight children stemming from the central rose as a symbol of her own marriage, and the rambling roses and buds could result from the natural branching off as children married and left home to start new families.

The weight and thickness of the fabric [in this quilt] raise the possibility that it may have come from textiles used for military uniforms around the time of the War of 1812.

This [Bears Paw] pattern is one of the many drawn from the unspoiled natural world which surrounded and so impressed earlier Americans.

The colour choices were tough and painterly ones. There was no attempt at elegant colour matching; they are jarring and emphasize the brutality and vigour of the composition.

The corner block may have been an intentional mistake by the maker, supporting the tradition of some quilters of marring the perfection of their work because “only God can make a perfect thing.”

As I said, when we do not have information, we tend to make up our own stories to fill in the gaps. For writers, this is part of our role. We interpret what we see in the quilts so that our readers can likewise understand what is important. There is no way we are going to stop looking at quilts, forming opinions and writing about them. So the challenge becomes to try to be more attentive to our opinions, and to how we form and express them. We need to let our readers know when we are expressing opinions or telling a story, and not simply let them believe we are stating facts when we are actually presenting guesswork.


I offer an example of how our personal attitudes influence our observations.  In 2001, I presented a programme called “Men Making Quilts”, in which I talked about our beliefs and attitudes.[6] To make a point about our notions of gender, I showed slides from my other research on the clothing worn by American contra dancers, specifically of men wearing skirts.[7] Even people who thought they had liberated themselves from gender bias typically experienced physical sensations of discomfort, the proverbial ‘gut reaction’, when they viewed these images. These are not Scottish dancers wearing kilts and full regalia, these are ‘good old boys’ in the American South, and they are not cross-dressing in an attempt to pass as women. They are men who enjoy the physical sensation of wearing skirts when they dance.

I showed images that confound our society’s accepted notions of gender and dress, and I asked the audience to acknowledge the sensations of discomfort that are produced in the body before the mind even has a chance to react. Some people will argue that they do not have this reaction, but it is very likely that they are denying their initial gut-reactions by quickly rationalizing them away. Instead of trying to deny that we experience these emotional and physical reactions when they occur, I suggest that we acknowledge the discomfort and take a closer look at the kinds of things that trigger them. These physical sensations are an indication that our attitudes are being challenged, and such restrictions can help us to identify our cultural blind spots. The examples of men in skirts shows us that, rational and liberal human beings that we think we are, we are still subject to culturally determined rules for appropriate behaviours for men and for women.

When I was reading and researching men wearing skirts, I found that some people have described sex-role-challenging behaviour of any sort as unnatural.  I have concluded that if a behaviour is described as unnatural and yet there are people who do it, it is an indication of a violation of cultural values rather than some actual natural law. After all, there are many cultures in which men wear robes, caftans, togas, kilts and other skirt-like garments. As long as it is somebody else’s culture, it doesn’t bother us; when the chap next door wears a skirt, we take notice.

These ideas are so deeply rooted in our culture that they operate without our awareness. According to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson:

Every experience takes place within a vast background of cultural presuppositions. It can be misleading, therefore to speak of direct physical experience as though there were some core of immediate experience which we then “interpret” in terms of our conceptual system. Cultural assumptions, values, and attitudes are not a conceptual overlay which we may or may not place upon experience as we choose. It would be more correct to say that all experience is cultural through and through, that we experience our “world” in such a way that our culture is already present in the very experience itself.[8]

Even though cultural values are learned rather than innate, they have become deeply embedded within us. The important thing to realise here is that cultural values and traditions are not just ideas that we can exchange at will for newer or more politically correct ideas. Culture is not located just in our heads; it resides in our bodies as well, and the body has a powerful memory.

An awareness of the physical manifestation of cultural attitudes can be useful in helping us to observe the ways our beliefs lead us to make judgements.  For one thing, we automatically tend to divide our experiences in terms of we and they. Although I am not a sports fan, I still experience a physical/emotional reaction to the colours and logo of the rival high-school football team – just as I did 40 years ago. But it is not simply a matter of: “We are good, they are bad”. It can be more subtle. More often it is expressed as: “We do things this way; they do things differently”.  We make these distinctions constantly, without thinking about it, particularly in terms of our notions of gender, race and social class: women/men, white/black, rich/poor. These issues are, of course, too large and too complicated to address definitively in the present paper. It can be useful, however, to look at some examples of how our cultural attitudes of gender, race and social class influence the way we look at quilts.


In the contemporary American world of home handcrafts, women are generally the ones who make things from fabric. Men make things from wood, or metal, or stone, or other so-called masculine materials. Clay is somewhere in the middle – it is acceptable for both men and women to make pottery. Women can get away with working with wood or metal, especially if they are doing small, detailed work, like jewellery, or if they are very good at what they do.

When it comes to images of men holding needles, making little tiny stitches, schmoozing with the ladies at the fabric shop, sitting around indoors – usually at home – doing handwork, most people – even self-avowed feminists – experience a bit of discomfort. A male needleworker, Arendt Kuelper, shared this memory in 1943: “I shall never forget when I visited . . . my youngest brother, during my visit he asked me if I had a hobby. I said yes. He said what.  I said Embroidery. I looked up and I can see that sickly grin on his face. Discustingly (sic] he said Embroidery”.[9]

The sickly grin and the “discusted” reaction described in this letter were the younger brother’s immediate and involuntary physical reactions to learning that the writer identified himself as an embroiderer. If we accept the idea that there is nothing intrinsically disgusting about embroidery itself, then we might choose to look at the underlying cultural assumptions that could cause that reaction of disgust. I think that a typical, though usually unspoken response to a man’s admission of doing needlework, is something like: “Why would a  man want to do that?; What’s the matter with you?; Are you a sissy?; Why would you waste your time with a useless activity that women do?; Why can’t you do something manly and masculine and be a real man?”. In the early 1970s, Roosevelt Grier, a well-known professional American football player, revealed that his hobby was needlepoint. This admission created a shockwave that went beyond sports media, and Grier and his needlepoint were featured on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, a weekly magazine. Even a six-foot, six-inch, 300-pound football player reported that he got flak from fans and colleagues for engaging in what they thought was a ‘sissy’ hobby.

Some people might say, “Oh, that’s all in the past. Things have changed. Men and women [indeed people of any gender identity] can do whatever they want now”. While I would agree that the women’s movement has blurred some of the distinctions involving sex roles, I think that men still face more personal difficulties than women in crossing the boundaries. American society has been described as the most homophobic in the world, and men who do needlework – or wear skirts while dancing – get called worse epithets than ‘sissy’.


We know that in many world cultures men are involved in textile production and display. In our culture, however, things that have to do with fabric and sewing are considered the province of women. There are some useful academic tools, such as semiotics and structural analysis, that researchers use to demonstrate these concepts, but I think most of us would agree that the basic word-idea of quilt is frequently associated with such other word-ideas as soft, old-fashioned, impractical, home-and-family, poverty, labour-intensive, time-consuming, feminine. Of course, those of us who are quilters have many other associations, but the ones listed above are common among the larger population. In general, our society’s cultural associations place quilts in the traditional sphere of women and home. Again, cultural values are not just mental concepts, they are powerful associations that are integrated with our physical and emotional selves.

Given that our society’s cultural values say that quiltmaking is for women only, how do men [or gender diverse individuals] overcome this sex segregation? First of all, not many of them do. Of course, some of us can recite the names of men, living or dead, who have done needlework, but compared to the millions of women doing it, the numbers really are small.

One way men do it is to find some way to transform quiltmaking activity to remove the stigma of ‘women’s work’. One way to do this is to call it ‘art’, and a good example of someone who has done this is Michael James. Michael has remained at the forefront of art quilters for over 25 years. Along the way he has had to negotiate a path between the serious art world, which does not recognize quilters as artists, and the quilt world, in which avid quilters flock to his classes and buy his books. Now on the faculty at the University of Nebraska, home of the International Quilt Study Center, Michael has received recognition for his work as a fabric artist.

This example suggests the importance of an additional cultural value – success. It’s not enough that a man who makes quilts calls himself an artist. He must somehow demonstrate that he is a successful artist. In our culture, success is measured in money and recognition and, of the two, money is by far the more significant. A male quilt artist who can make neither a living nor a splash is considered merely a foolish time-waster. In Britain, of course, there were professional tailors who made elaborate pictorial quilts during the Victorian era.[10]


There were several American men in the early twentieth century who achieved some degree of public recognition, though not money, for their quiltmaking. One of the ways these men negotiated the sex-role divide was to set their work apart from that of the majority of female quiltmakers through technical virtuosity. Albert Small worked as a dynamite handler in an Illinois quarry. Around 1930, he teased his wife about the amount of time she spent on her quilts. When challenged to do better, he made his first quilt. He spent 14 months hand-piecing 36,000 tiny hexagons in an elaborate framed-centre design. Then he cut down his hexagon template to a half-inch across and made a second quilt with 63,460 pieces. He trimmed another quarter-inch from his template and made his third and last quilt, which took four years and included about 123,200 pieces. Each unit of seven hexagons can be covered by a dime, and he was able to cut 1,700 pieces from a single yard of fabric. Clearly Albert Small was a man with a mission – to go where no quiltmaker, male or female, had gone before. Albert Small, Arendt Kuelper and several other male needle-workers gained national attention in America because their work was considered unusual enough to be featured in newspapers and magazines. Emma Andres, an Arizona quilter, corresponded with a number of these men in the early twentieth century and preserved their letters in a scrapbook.[11]


Not all quiltmakers, of any gender, seek fame and fortune through their quilts. Many others celebrate quiltmaking as ‘family heritage’. Typically, the interest and skills are handed down among the women of a family, not always mother to daughter but sometimes involving aunts or grandmothers. Less typical are quilt-related bonds that link male family members. Ruben T. Thornton Jr, of Summerville, South Carolina, made a quilt from neckties in the early twentieth century. He bequeathed it to his grandson, Ruben T. Thornton IV. I saw the quilt when that grandson brought it to a documentation day, and he was accompanied by his own grandson, who was to inherit the quilt. This example of a quilt connecting men through generations, especially in an established white family, struck all of us who were working on the project that day as highly unusual and significant. I suspect that the use of neckties, as distinctly male clothing, has contributed to the acceptability of this man-made quilt. But the passage of time and of generations has imbued this quilt with heirloom status, highlighting the maker’s role as progenitor and obscuring any question about unmanly activity.

Marlene O’Bryant-Seabrook, of Charleston, South Carolina, researched a group of quilts made by her father’s cousins, Maggie McFarland Gillispie and her son, John Gillispie Jr. The son was left a paraplegic following an automobile accident at age 21, and spent the rest of his life confined to bed or a wheelchair.  He and his mother made quilts together, sharing both the piecing and quilting on the frame.[12]  There are other published accounts of women and men making quilts while bedridden through injury or illness. Although we admire the dedication of invalids, who often overcome emotional as well as physical barriers to produce tangible objects of beauty, this example suggests another negative cultural association. If an activity is so simple that it can be done by a man in a wheelchair, what do we think of an able-bodied man who takes up needlework by choice instead of playing golf, hunting or building furniture?

In addition to quiltmaking legacies within families, there are larger connections among quiltmakers.  We folklorists use the word tradition frequently to refer to these cultural continuities that inform group behaviour.  Women often express pleasure in participating in what they see as an American and a particularly female tradition of quiltmaking. And, although they are less well-known, there are also male traditions in quiltmaking as well.

In the book Quilt Treasures, Janet Rae and Margaret Tucker describe a distinctive tradition of quiltmaking which developed among British soldiers.[13] According to Rae and Tucker, most of these quilts were made between the Crimean war, which started in 1854, and about 1910. A Mariner’s Compass variation was made in India by a soldier during convalescence from some unspecified illness or injury. This quilt was handed down along with the information that the quilt contained 7,000 pieces of fabric, 48,000 inches of braid and 168,000 stitches.[14] This attention to recorded detail is reminiscent of the record-setting accomplishments of Albert Small, and it is worth noting that Small was born in High Wycombe, England in 1885, and that he “had an uncle that made a quilt of 25,000 pieces while he was in India in the English army”.[15]


For most of the quarter century that I have been studying quilts, I must admit that I have largely ignored the work of men. I characterised male quiltmakers as braggarts, as wanting to demonstrate their superiority over women, and as intentionally setting themselves and their work apart from women. In other words, I thought that we women make quilts for the right reasons – family, personal satisfaction, tradition; and that men make them for the wrong reasons – money, recognition, competition. We pursued it as a cooperative social activity, while they tended to work as competitive individuals.

When I was in Anchorage, Alaska in 2001, I met George Taylor. George has been interested in the sewing machine for as long as he can remember, and he made his first quilt in 1965. He does not keep track of how many he has made, but his work has been published in books by Judy Hopkins, Mary Mashuta and Roberta Horton. George has translated his interest in the sewing machine and his love of colour and fabric into an impressive body of work. He is active in the Anchorage Quilters’ Guild, and he has found a place in the competitive, female-dominated field of published quiltmakers.

So some things have changed. Some men, at least, are comfortable enough with their quilt-making that they become part of the community of women. This kind of camaraderie would have been impossible a century, or even a half century ago, when male/female interactions were more highly structured. Male quiltmakers of the past did not so much set themselves apart from women with similar interests; custom simply did not allow them to participate in quiltmaking with a group of women. Whether or not they channelled their loneliness and isolation into feats of textile virtuosity, some of them did seem to use quiltmaking as a way to gain recognition. And this public recognition sometimes provided opportunities for men to meet with other quiltmakers. Harry Kendig, another early twentieth century needleworker, prided himself not only for piecing quilts containing 4,000 to 6,000 pieces but also for hand-quilting the tops which, he pointed out, Albert Small did not do. Kendig’s work was featured in Florence Peto’s book Historic Quilts, and he kept a scrapbook of letters he received from all over the country. He was obviously pleased with the attention his quilts received, for he confided to Emma Andres “that there is a lot of women come to my house to see them”.[16]

So, why would a man make a quilt? The simple answer is that they make quilts for a lot of the same reasons that we do, to create beauty, to gain recognition, to show off one’s talent and skill, to participate in a shared tradition, to leave a legacy for one’s family, to do something when you can’t do anything else. When you think about it, all of these are human motivations, not limited to gender.


In 1983, Maude Wahlman, an art historian, curated an exhibition of quits made by a group of African American women in southern Mississippi.[17] The quilts made a lot of people uncomfortable because they challenged prevailing aesthetic standards for quilts. Based on this small regional sample, Wahlman listed the characteristics of African American quilts: bold, often asymmetrical arrangements, large design elements; bright colours, often in dynamic contrasts; and multiplicity of pattern (having more than one visual theme). Wahlman’s work was important because it revealed that these quilts were examples of an alternative aesthetic tradition, not merely poor imitations of European American quilts.


However, one unintended result of Wahlman’s work was that her descriptive list of characteristics soon became prescriptive. The characteristics she identified were misused as a checklist for determining the supposed authenticity of African American quilts. Some Black quiltmakers were understandably outraged when their quilts were regarded as impure, tainted, co-opted, or otherwise “not really African American”.

What happened was that the only way many quilt enthusiasts could accept the quilts in Wahlman’s exhibition was to emphasise their difference. We make quilts with these rules; they make quilts with those rules. It has taken much of the past two decades, but African American women and men have reclaimed their right to the full range of styles and influences available to all contemporary quiltmakers. Free to choose, many Black quiltmakers consciously use African and African-inspired textiles in their quilts to honour their ancestral home continent. However, there seem to be lingering attitudes about what is or is not appropriate for one race or another. Several years ago, I acquired a small, irregular remnant of a fabric printed with the figures of joyous, vaguely Caribbean women. Fabrics printed with positive adult human images are rare enough, and images of brown-skinned women seemed particularly unusual. Making use of every bit of the fabric, I combined it with colourful, tropical prints in a quilt. Reactions to it include puzzlement at why a white woman would make a quilt depicting African American figures. I have observed the physical discomfort of viewers as they search the quilt for clues as to its political correctness or lack thereof before commenting.

In the United States, demographics are changing such that people of Hispanic origin now outnumber African Americans. Right now, I know of only one Latino quiltmaker, who is a man. It will be interesting in the coming years to observe how Mexican, Guatemalan or Haitian Americans might adopt and adapt quiltmaking to reflect their cultural traditions and how these expressions are received by others.

Social class

The participation of men and African Americans in quiltmaking is generally acknowledged through magazine articles, books and special exhibitions. The issue of social class, however, is rarely discussed, even in scholastic publications. This is largely an American problem, I think. Europeans recognise that society is made up of different levels based on such factors as tradition, income and opportunity. Due to our particular cultural notions of democracy and individual freedom, we Americans like to think, in the abstract at least, that social classes either do not exist or do not matter.


For Americans, it is very difficult to step back and look at the ways this attitude influences the way we think, but it seems to me that instead of acknowledging class differences as such, we tend to see social inequalities as deficiencies that can be remedied if the individuals in question would merely take advantage of the opportunities already available to them. Rather than recognising the broad implications of the social-class structure, we tend to view our middle and upper-class culture as the norm, and anything lower is a problem that ought to be addressed, preferably by the problematic individuals themselves. As a result, we are embarrassed by references to the lower classes. As I was writing this paper, I had difficulty merely writing the preceding sentence. I wanted a euphemism, like ‘socio-economically-challenged’, that would allow me to identify these groups without having to refer to class structure.

What would happen if we Americans not only admitted that we have lower classes but that these classes have valid and valuable cultural traditions? The way we deal with this is to call it folklore. We have culture; lower classes have folklore. Although we avoid describing it in this way, we automatically associate folklore with lower classes. We American folklorists describe our interests as “artistic behaviour in groups”, but the groups we choose to study are the ones we see as different from ourselves. The issue is not new: the term ‘folklore’ itself reflects high-culture/low-culture distinctions that permeated and drove research from the start. These residual attitudes have been securely in place for the last 200 years.

During the past several years, I have been researching both quiltmaking traditions and clothing behaviour of contemporary contra-dance groups in the southeastern United States. The demographics of these groups are similar to those of my generation of folklorists. Some of the responses of other folklorists to my work suggest that they do not see this subject as important and are not particularly comfortable with the suggestion that the behaviours we study might also be applied to ourselves.


With these theories in mind, I would like to return to the subject of race. I think that the American aversion to discussions of social class has contributed to some of our misinterpretations of African American quiltmaking. The quilts that Maude Wahlman included in her landmark exhibition were made by rural Black women in Mississippi. However, Wahlman declared that the aesthetic characteristics of these quilts derived from the makers’ ancestral African heritage rather than from their socio-economically challenging conditions.

I do not wish to deny that there might be African cultural retentions in African American quilts, as there certainly are in dance, religious song, speech and oral narratives. I think, though, that more practical reasons relating to social class contribute to the appearance of these quilts. I have been reading recently about the material culture of American slavery. Slave owners supplied their work force with bedding, either by purchasing inexpensive blankets, usually of British manufacture, or by organising slave women to make wholecloth comforters from locally woven or purchased fabric. From my reading, I suspect that the majority of the quilts mentioned in the interviews with former slaves were wholecloth rather than patchwork.

We know that some slave women acquired fabric remnants and that some of them made quilts for their own use. It is unlikely, however, that these would have included many patterned quilts. The conditions under which enslaved families lived and worked varied greatly but, particularly during the period 1830-1860, many were able to work or raise crops of their own after completing their assigned tasks and to keep the income. While there may have been enslaved women who made patterned quilts for their own use and enjoyment, they were more likely to have devoted their free time to income-producing enterprises.

There is also the issue of scissors. During the early nineteenth century, scissors were the expensive and highly-valued possessions of well-to-do women. Although enslaved seamstresses may have had access to scissors while working in the Big House, it would have been highly unusual for slaves to own scissors themselves. A succession of slave revolts made slave owners particularly wary of ready access to potential weapons.

A slave woman in possession of enough salvaged fabric to make a quilt then, would have had to tear it into usable pieces that could then be sewn together. I suggest that this is probably a major factor in the development of African American quilts that are made from long strips and large rectangular pieces. Extant examples of quilts made by slaves for their own use are exceedingly rare, but Susan Small, a woman who lived on the same land as her enslaved ancestors, made a quilt in the mid twentieth century of long strips and large rectangular pieces. There are examples of similar quilts made by white women, usually women who would be considered lower class. The collection of the National Museum of Ireland includes several unquilted tops that could pass for African American patchwork quilts in South Carolina.

I think Wahlman missed an important point about the quilts she looked at.  This is often the case with writers who are not quiltmakers themselves. When I started my first quilt in 1975, I used sewing scissors I had used for dressmaking. They were not very sharp, and the pieces I cut were not exact. I accepted this as one of the normal conditions of quiltmaking. I remember what a revelation it was when I went to a quilt workshop and borrowed someone’s expensive Ginghers scissors that transformed cutting from an ordeal into a pleasure. In the 20 years since Wahlman’s exhibitions and publications first promoted strip construction as an African retention, I have not heard anyone suggest that there might be a more immediate, technological explanation for this characteristic.



Having raised a number of questions about the ways we have been looking at quits, I must admit that I do not have answers for them. I do, however, have some suggestions for making our questions work for us.

The tendency to want answers is natural, and it is important to observe this tendency in ourselves. When we have questions in our research, instead of rushing to supply answers, we might try asking more questions. A colleague recently commented to me that she was ‘comfortable’ with linking a particular quilt style to a particular period. What I am suggesting is that, instead of trying immediately to resolve the discomfort produced by a question, we stay with both the question and the discomfort. Otherwise, once we provide ourselves with an answer that makes us comfortable, we stop looking for other possible answers. Learning stops when we get ‘comfortable’.

The phrasing of the question is important. The most valuable questions often begin not with ‘why’ but with ‘how’. Why did the maker pick those awful colours is a very different question than how did they make decisions about colour. What we need are neutral questions that come from an objective stance rather than a judgemental one. It is human nature to be judgemental, but with effort we can become more aware of this tendency in ourselves and consciously reframe our judgements in the form of neutral questions. We need to listen to ourselves asking the questions. If we listen to the questions we ask, it is possible that we could learn something about our own underlying attitudes. We need to hold onto those questions, resisting the tendency to come up with premature answers. Holding onto our questions can have a positive effect on both the quality and quantity of the data produced and can lead to more honest and useful research.

Briefly, then, what I am proposing is that we try to intercept our preconceived notions before we express them, and that we attempt to develop the practice of asking ourselves how we know if these things are true. This is difficult because we are frequently in situations in which we are presumed to be authorities. We dislike disappointing people by saying: “I don’t know”. However, even as we acknowledge our own uncertainty, we can reframe the asker’s specific question into one or more neutral questions, and use this as an opportunity to demonstrate how much we still do not know about the history of quilts. We need to remember that we have something to offer that is more valuable than answers; we can demonstrate that the reality – as well as the beauty and the wonder – of research is that there really are more questions than answers.

Laurel Horton

This paper first appeared in the BQSG journal ‘Quilt Studies’, vol 6, 2004, edited by Dorothy Osler.

Images from The Quilters’ Guild Museum Collection included in this article did not appear in the original.


[1] Laurel Horton, “Economic Influences on German and Scotch-Irish Quilts in Antebellum Rowan County, North Carolina, M.A. thesis, University of North Carolina-chapel Hill (1979).

[2] Ruth Finley, Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., McLean,Virginia: EPM Publications, 1992), 38.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jonathan Holstein, The Pieced Quilt: An American Design Tradition (New York: Galahad Books, 1973), 99.

[5] Ibid, 62-64.

[6] Laurel Horton, “Men Making Quilts”, paper presented at the Alaska State Museum, Juneau, 13 May 2001; and at Anchorage Museum of Art and History, 21 October 2001.

[7] Laurel Horton, “Men  in Skirts”, paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Folklore Society, Anchorage, Alaska, 20 October 2001.

[8] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 57.

[9] Janet Carruth, and Laurene Sinema, “Emma Andres and Her Six Grand Old Characters”, Uncoverings 1990 (San Francisco: American Quilt Study Group, 1991), 99.

[10] Rosemary E. Allan, North Country Quilts and Coverlets from Beamish Museum, (Stanley: Beamish Museum, 1987), 11-13; Clare Rose, “Pictorial quilts of victorian Tailors”, paper presented at the symposium Wild By Design, Lincoln, Nebraska, (February 2003).

[11] Carruth and Sinema, 88-108; see also Barbara Brackman, “Albert Small’s Record-Breaking Quilts”, Quilter’s Newsletter Magazine 22, no. 4 (1991), 28-31.

[12] Marlene O’Bryant-Seabrook, “Symbiotic Stitches: The Quilts of Maggie McFarland Gillispie and John Gillispie, Jr”, in Uncoverings 1995 (San Francisco: American Quilt Study Group, 1995), 175-98

[13] The Quilters’ Guild, Quilt Treasures: The Quilters’ Guild Heritage Search (London: Deidre McDonald Books, 1995), 170-77.

[14] Ibid., Fig. 145.

[15] Carruth and Sinema, 96.

[16] Ibid., 95.

[17] Maude S. Wahlman and Ellen King Torrey, Ten Afro-American Quilters (University of Mississippi: Center for the Study of Southern culture, 1983); see also Maude S. Wahlman and John Scully, “Aesthetic Principles in Afro-American Quilts”, in William R. Ferris Jr (Ed) Afro-American Folk Art and Crafts (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983) 78-97.

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