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Historians At Quilt Museums Debunk Some Myths Surrounding Some Beloved Textiles

By Cynthia Wagner

If a family quilt has ever been handed down to you from a beloved grandmother or great grandmother, you know how much people cherish their heirlooms. Over the years, myths have come to be associated with this quintessentially American art form. Historians and Quilt Museums have carefully researched some of the most popular myths and come up with some interesting observations.

Antique quilts, in many ways, are window into the country's beginnings. We have ideas about our ancestors in the colonies sewing together scraps of material to create bed covers for their families. We see this as a sign of their thriftiness. Some people believe quilters designed pieces with secret messages for runaway slaves to help them get to a safe haven using the Underground Railroad.

Scrap bags, where housewives keep bits of cloth leftover from sewing projects, may be a modern myth. This fits in with our view of colonists who had to use ingenuity and hard work to create everyday objects. The fact is that most of these early quilts were made from whole cloth. It was not your everyday fabric either. These quilts came from expensive imported fabric instead of scraps. Quilting from scraps didn't come into the picture until after the Industrial Revolution.

It is commonly believed that colonial women made quilts. This fits our picture of Americans with limited resources but plenty of resilience. Historians have found this to be fairly rare. In colonial times, textiles were expensive commodities. It was only after industry technology made mass produced cloth affordable that cutting up material and sewing it back together made economic sense.

Many people associate quilting only with women. Feminists have embraced quilting as a good example of the strength and ingenuity of women. They point to the communal aspect of quilting bees that brought women together working toward a common goal. While this is true, there are any number of talented professional male quilters. There are also male quilt pattern artists. Some of their best works hang concurrently with female quilters.

Most people believe that quilting is an American phenomenon. America may produce the majority of quilts, and created distinctive traditions that were handed down from generation to generation. Some of the styles and designs were borrowed from Europe though. Mosaic patchwork design, seen in American quilts, originated in Britain. Quilted textiles dating to the first century have been found in Mongolia.

One of the most persistent myths surrounding the American quilting phenomenon is that it played a powerful part in the Underground Railroad. The belief is that quilters sewed code into their creations to guide fugitive slaves to safe havens along the their way to freedom. There seems to be no real evidence of this. Historians say it's most likely a folk tale derived from a particular family.

Quilts are universally loved. They are admired for their beauty and the stories they tell. Some of the most popular myths may not be factual, but that doesn't take away from the historical significance of the quilts themselves.

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Historians At Quilt Museums Debunk Some Myths Surrounding Some Beloved Textiles


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