America's Quilting History

Depression Era Quilts: Cheer in Fabric and Color

If you were to read one of the popular women's magazines during the 1930's you could easily miss the fact that they were published during the depression years. Hard times and suffering doesn't sell magazines or products.

Why Quilting Helped Sell Magazines

In order to survive, magazines had to sell fashion and optimism. One way they did this was by including new quilt patterns, tips and stories in their issues. Quilting was one activity that a woman could do to fulfill her desire to be creative while still making something practical for her family.

depression era quilt by my grandmother

Warm bedding was welcome on cold nights and the lovely patterns and fabrics brought a simple beauty to the home. The quilt could be made from sewing scraps and from out-grown clothing, so very little expense was involved.

But this renewed enthusiasm for quilting didn't appear out of nowhere. The events of the previous decades set the scene for quilting in the depression era. In the latter part of the 19th Century the Arts and Crafts Movement was born in Europe and soon influenced America as well.

This movement was in contrast to the Victorian era with its overly busy and ornate decor. The Arts and Craft Movement encouraged going back to simpler, handcrafted architecture, furniture and home decoration.

The Colonial Revival that bloomed during the first part of the 20th century was a natural result of this movement. Pre-industrial times were glorified and handmade items were in demand. America looked to its past for inspiration. Quilting fell right into this philosophy.

The Myth of Colonial Quilting
a reproduction apple core doll quilt

During the booming twenties, when anything and everything seemed possible, Americans were fascinated with Colonial times. Trunks and attics were searched for antiques and family heirlooms. Magazines encouraged development of a romanticized version of the past with their own version of colonial furniture and quilts.

Much of what was romanticized as "colonial" represented what was actually from the period just before the Victorian era dating from the nineteenth century rather than the eighteenth. As a result of these magazine articles women were eager to make or buy pieced cotton quilts reminiscent of the pre-Victorian years.

Changes in Fabrics and Styles

The middle of the 1920s marked an abrupt change in the color of fabrics being produced. Women may have wanted quilts that reminded them of their heritage, but they wanted them in the new pastel and light-bright color schemes. Designers promoted their dreamy floral applique designs, and quilting came to be seen as an art rather than a utilitarian craft.

Although a great many pieced quilts were made, appliqued quilts were particularly prized. Interest in embroidery was also renewed and women sometimes incorporated it into their quilts. Pre-stamped quilt blocks were sold with embroidery motifs. All this was well underway before the crash of 1929. The stage was set for a renewed love of quilting among American women.

The Continuing Role of Women's Magazines

depression era grandmother's flower garden Women's magazines continued to publish new patterns and innovative quilting aids in spite of the financial limits of this era. Some even sold precut fabric so that all a woman needed to do was sew the pieces together.

As many women couldn't afford to buy patterns and other quilting items sometimes several women would go together on such purchases. For example iron on patterns could be used by several people. Other women made do with drawing a pattern from a photo found in a borrowed magazine. The woman would then work out the size and shape to cut the pieces on her own. Beautiful quilts were made based on nothing more than a picture.

Newspapers and Catalogs Got in on Quilting Too

Magazines were not alone in promoting interest in quilts. Newspapers were a common source of quilt patterns during the 1930s. The Mountain Mist manufacturer of batting decided to print block and appliqué patterns on their packaging. Even the big catalog companies got in on the act.

The Sears exhibit at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933 included an exhibit of the winning quilts of their national quilt competition. This grand contest proved to be a great marketing ploy with $7,500 to be given in prizes. The competition started at the local level so almost every woman in the country felt she could be a part of it if she chose. The response was an enthusiastic one with 24,000 quilts entered.

We Call it a Revival But Some Had Never Stopped Quilting

Although the revival of quilting sparked the interest of city and country women alike, many of the rural women had been making quilts all their lives. These women continued to make them and were creative in finding ways to make something from nothing.

One frugal quilting method was "string quilting", a technique in which strips of cloth of varying widths were sewn together using old newspaper as a base. This technique was done much as we do in paper piecing today. String quilting was a great way to use every scrap of fabric available. These sections of "string" patches could be pieced in simple squares or combined with other fabric in traditional patterns.

Farm women also had the advantage of being able to grow their own cotton for batting. Some prided themselves on their ability to make a thin even filling for their quilts.

Quilt Businesses of All Sizes Thrive

depression era sunbonnet motif

Quilts of the depression era were not always made for private use. Quilting was also a way of earning money to help a family get by financially. Both country and city dwellers did piecework for pay. Quilting businesses ranged from cottage industries to modern firms that designed and produced quilts.

The common element was that women did the work, often at home. One woman may have pieced a quilt, another quilted it, and yet another might have sewn on the binding. Much of this work was done by hand as the consumers' interest in history and the old ways of doing things made hand pieced and quilted items more valuable.

The Depression Era Brought About Changes in Quilting

We find that quilts were a natural part of the need to go back to basics during the depression era. Yet is was a time of innovation as well. Family and community were less likely to be the source for quilt patterns as women turned to the current magazines for inspiration.

Traditional patterns were modernized and fresh new possibilities were introduced including lovely natural floral applique designs and scenes made of tiny fabric squares based on cross stitch. The depression era was enlivened by women designing and constructing quilts.

NEXT > World War II & Beyond: Quilting, Alive Beneath the Surface


References:

"Clues in the Calico", by Barbara Brackman

"Kansas Quilts and Quilters", by Brackman, Chinn, Davis

"Quiltmaking in America: Beyond the Myths", Laurel Horton (Editor)

"Soft Covers for Hard Times", by Merikay Waldvogel


Webpages:

"Grandmother's Flower Garden Quilts" A depression era favorite.

Free Patterns and Their Stories for Colonial Revival Quilts

A Century of Progress:Quilts and the 1933 Chicago World's Fair