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HOME / QUILTING - BY A.-L. BEAUMONT AND E. ZAKEM / 1. INTRODUCTION TO QUILTING /


a. Quilting in the 20th century

For ease of discussion, quilt historians often divide a century into quarters, and while a style may be popular in a particular quarter, quilters may continue to make it in later quarters, since good design never dies. PEI quilters followed the general North American trends. There are many excellent quilt history books available. Clues in the Calico: A Guide to Identifying and Dating Antique Quilts by Barbara Brackman (1989) and 300 Years of Canada's Quilts by Mary Conroy (1976) are particularly good.

In the first quarter of the 20th century, styles including wool utility quilts and comforters, silk or wool show quilts, crazy quilts, and foundation patchwork such as the log cabin, red and white quilts, blue and white quilts, and dark (black, blue, burgundy) cotton quilts were carried over from the last quarter of the 19th century. The patterns chosen were generally pieced. An effect of the First World War can be seen in the poor, thin quality of many fabrics pieced into quilts of this period.

During the second quarter of the century, colours lightened due to developments in dye technology. Pastels (pink, blue, peach, and lilac) became popular, as did bright colours such as yellow. Nile green, a dull blue green, is a characteristic colour of this quarter. Quilt designers produced sophisticated floral appliqué quilts, available in patterns and quilt kits. Patterns such as Dresden Plate, Grandmother's Flower Garden, Dutch Girl and Boy (also known as Sunbonnet Sue and Overall Bill) were popular.

The hardships of the 1930s' Depression can be seen in quilts made from scraps with backings of flour, sugar, and feed sacks. A photograph provided by Mary Burnett shows a quilt back made from a flour sack, which reads "Lakeside Milling Co. Limited, Toronto-- Canada 98 lbs when packed. This flour contains improvers." It was made by Mrs. Shrieve Millar, circa 1965.


In her book, The Home Place: Life in Rural Prince Edward Island in the 1920s and 30s, Jean Halliday MacKay, recalling Depression days, remembers the recycling necessary during hard times:
Discarded items were made into quilt squares, or used for hooking or braiding mats in families where these skills were practiced, and badly worn garments became scrubbing cloths. Today quilts and mats are made with new fabric and yarn and are almost an art form. In my childhood, they were necessary for warmth; many of them were very attractive and lasted for years.
During the Second World War, many Red Cross quilts went abroad. In fact, according to Sherri Davidson's research, the PEI Women's Institutes gathered or made 9,260 quilts for delivery overseas.

After the Second World War, people enjoyed the expanding domestic economy and wanted new machine-made items. Consequently, the interest in quilting declined, but it did not die out. Printed fabrics of the late 1940s and the 1950s had larger motifs than those of the first quarter century, and these distinguished the quilts of the period. The 1970s brought a revival of interest in quilting, and the art quilt, intended for the wall, was born during this decade. The art inherent in quilts -- art that is especially noticeable when the quilt is hung on the wall -- was finally recognized.

The last quarter of the 20th century saw an explosion in interest in quilting. The art quilt movement developed. Pieced, appliquéd, and quilted garments were produced as wearable art. Modern art quilts distinguished themselves from the Victorian show quilts of the previous century with the appearance in some quilts of philosophical statements, ideas, or messages in their images, rather than strictly decorative or commemorative symbolism. Other art quilts became pictorial, depicting landscapes, people, and animals. The Baltimore album-style appliqué revival brought new interest in appliqué. What is more, in the last quarter of the last century, quilt history became a legitimate field of inquiry.

Simultaneously in the final quarter of the century, there was a significant revolution in the technology and tools that support quilting. Rotary cutters, transparent rulers with grids, and self-healing mats eliminated scissors and changed the way the geometric shapes for pieced quilts are cut out.


The use of a paper foundation when piecing was modernized. Iron-on fusible web containing a heat-sensitive glue simplified appliqué. Sewing machines with special free-motion features facilitated machine-quilting, as did invisible plastic thread. Embellishment techniques such as metallic thread and beads (throwbacks to Victorian quilts) were used in innovative ways. Quilting software such as QuiltPro and Electric Quilt became useful aids in quilt design. Computerized sewing machines also appeared. Methods were developed to transfer photographs, computer images, and text to fabrics.

At a recent round table discussion at the Preconference QuiltCanada 2000, Valerie Hearder reported that in the United States, $1.5 billion US was spent annually on quilting. The figure was based on results of a mid-1990s Quilters Newsletter Magazine survey. In Canada, where our population is approximately ten per cent that of the United States, it would be reasonable to guess that quilters spend about $1.5 million annually, if interest in quilting in Canada is comparable.

Depending on one's viewpoint, the developments in the last quarter of the century can be considered either revolutionary or excessive. If a quilter were tool-oriented, the technological developments were exciting. Others certainly felt, with good reason, that it was an age of excess. Women had considerable disposable income and spent lavishly on tools, materials, training classes, and, especially, books. The proliferation of quilting books was remarkable. Books were written on every conceivable aspect and technique, and for every opinion, technical or otherwise, there was a contrary view. Far more than one could ever use or need was readily available.

It is still too early to be able to definitively assess the last quarter of the 20th century; more time needs to pass for quilters and quilt historians to pass objective judgement on the late 1900s.

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