Quilting has long been a means of connecting women in the Great Plains. As material objects, quilts connected European American settlers with their past homes. As process, making quilts gave women an acceptable outlet for their creative powers while fulfilling their household duties. Sharing the labor of quilting, through formal and informal quilting circles, relieved the isolation of women's lives. Especially in the early years of settlement, communal quilting activities were inclusive; as the entire quilt had to be quilted in one day, it would have been counterproductive as well as impolitic to leave any neighbor out. It seems likely that European immigrants assimilated the Anglo-American quilt traditions through such gatherings.
Although most quilts were made for domestic use, women also joined to make quilts for public purposes: helping the needy or honoring community leaders through presentation quilts inscribed with the names of the makers. Women's church societies raised money by quilting: a Ladies Aid in Harvard, Nebraska, for example, earned more than $1,400 in seven years through quilting and socials.
Women living in towns who shared an interest– temperance, suffrage, self-improvement, or quilting–found it easier to form organizations than did rural women. A "young ladies crazy patchwork society" in 1884 in Red Cloud, Nebraska, is an early instance of a specifically quilt-related group. When quiltmaking regained popularity in the 1910s and 1920s, better transportation enabled rural women to come together more often. While women still made quilts as individuals, in the 1920s and 1930s they also turned to friends and neighbors who met in many informal clubs, with names like the Willing Workers, the Helping Hands, or the Friendship Club. The hostess at each meeting would "furnish work" for members, who often made the quilt blocks as well as helped to quilt the finished top.
Despite standardizing influences such as quilts pictured in national women's magazines, patterns published by regional media such as the Kansas City Star, and kits and patterns distributed through national companies, distinctive styles evolved in some communities. Emporia, Kansas, became a center for some of the finest appliqué quiltmaking of the twentieth century. Some of the Mennonite communities scattered throughout the Great Plains have become known for a style of whole-cloth quilts; auctions of their quilts benefit relief and mission work. Another unusual style, based on the Lone Star design, has evolved among Native Americans on reservations in the Dakotas.
Quiltmaking declined again during World War II, as transportation and materials again became scarce. Still, church sewing societies in rural areas kept the skills, patterns, and traditions alive until the late 1960s, when interest in the past and in handmade things led to a revival of interest that has lasted since that time. Quilt guilds began to form on the local level in the early 1970s and spread to state and national levels. These guilds develop the individual quilter, add to the body of knowledge of quilting, and continue the philanthropic work of the early quilting circles in the Plains.
See also FOLKWAYS: Quilting.
Kari Running University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Brackman, Barbara, Jennie A. Chinn, Gayle R. Davis, Terry Thompson, Sara Reimer Farley, and Nancy Hornback. Kansas Quilts and Quilters. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993.
Crews, Patricia Cox, and Ronald Naugle, eds. Nebraska Quilts and Quiltmakers. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.
Pulford, Florence. Morning Star Quilts: A Presentation of the Work and Lives of Northern Plains Indian Women. Los Altos CA: Leone Publications, 1989.