Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Quilting Politics

Flag, 1915, made by Belle Engley of Kingston, Michigan. cottons, pieced, 78.5 x 67.5 inches. Collection of Marcia and Ron Spark.

Did you know that quilts have played an important role in American politics?

It's only since 1919 that women in the US had the right to vote but American women have been playing an active role in politics since long before that and largely through their quilting.

The 19th century brought a growing population through immigration and and growing populations mean growing social problems. Women created organizations to improve education, prisons, temperance in drinking, abolition of war and slavery, and women's rights. The money to run these causes were raised at fairs, festivals and bazaars where they sold their baked goods, needlework and, yes, quilts.

The Civil War brought more cause for fundraising and more quilts being made to finance the buying of gun boats and hospital supplies and still more quilts were made to send out to the soldiers themselves. Quilts were used by Abolitionists to express their antislavery viewpoints and the names of traditional quilting patterns were changed to reflect their views: for example Job's Tears became Slave Chain and Jacob's Ladder became Underground Railway.

In the 20th century women continued to express their political and patriotic points of view through quilting. Magazines and newspapers called for quilts to send to "Our Boys Over There" and to sell to raise money for the war cause.

But I'm happy to see that with the right to vote, women have not entirely given up the public voice quilting gave us. One of my favorite modern quilters, Denyse Schmidt, has made this beautiful quilt to help raise funds for the Barack Obama campaign. You can find her fundraising page by clicking here.

No matter what your political sway, quilts like this help us to remember, at least help me to remember, that voting is an earned right for all of us. I'm glad my voice in politics today is counted in the private ballot box but I'm also glad that there were many women before me that took advantage of a public voice through fabric and needlework. Although a quilt didn't "count" in elections, they certainly made a difference in our history.

Stars and Stripes, c. 1876, cottons, pieced, 12.5 x 15.5 inches. Thelma Moore-Morris Doll Quilt Collection.

Facts and photos from The American Quilt: A History of Cloth and Comfort 1750-1950 by Roderick Kiracofe

This article was originally posted on


Originals by Lauren said...

What a great article! Thanks for posting it!

kimbuktu said...

Great article, very timely!

bybethstudio said...

This is wonderful. There was an article on a similar topic on the Quilting Arts Magazine site....