From Bread to Roses: Technology, Quilts, and Women’s Lives (with a focus on Canada)

A quick word of introduction: I spent April and May, 2011, as a visiting researcher at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. My purpose in going there was to continue my study of quilting and feminist theology. Through their library, I was able to access a great many sources on quilts. I became interested in things that I never previously would have expected to find interesting. At the beginning of my two months there, I gave a public lecture on quilts and women’s liberation. At the end of my time there, the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society which had hosted me invited me to give a brief overview of some of my research. What follows is what I decided to pull out of the many avenues that I had pursued. Because I was working in Canada, I made a particular effort to associate my work with the history of quilting in Canada, but almost everything said here would also apply to the United States.

My field of study is ethics. I have never been particularly interested in history. “History” in high school meant memorizing dates of battles, president’s terms, etc. It never interested me. History of ideas does interest me; after all, the field of ethics is a constant dialogue among thinkers – JS Mill refines Bentham’s approach to utilitarianism, both of them are reacting to Immanuel Kant, etc. But clearly ideas do not exist in isolation from material reality; changes in the material world affect the flow and dominance of ideas. So my study of the history of quilting is a study about material culture (pun intended) and how it intertwined with ideas about women’s roles and place in society, etc. However, I offer a methodological caution: accessing history always runs the risk that one will read back into women’s lives and ideas the meanings that we might give to things today rather than understanding the sensibilities of the time.

I entitled this talk “From bread to roses….” The phrase “bread and roses” has a contested history. Many people attribute its popularity to an uprising in a Lawrence, Massachusetts, textile mill in 1912, where women carried signs protesting the lowering of salaries by indicating that they needed “bread and roses” – not just food enough for the body, but dignity and food for the soul. Since the phrase is associated with textile mills, it seems particularly appropriate to apply it to quilting.

Scenario #1: It is around 1800. Settlers are moving west in the territories that will eventually become Canada. In pioneer days, bedding was essential and hence valuable and it was the woman’s job to provide it – working from scratch and using what was available. The Canadian climate was too cold for growing cotton, so early quilts were made of linen or wool; but the preparation of either of these in order to weave cloth is extremely taxing and time-consuming. Pioneer women had a hard life: they tended poultry and sheep, birthed and raised children, cooked and cleaned, hackled and sorted flax; washed, picked, greased, and carded wool; spun the flax or wool into thread, dyed it, and wove it into cloth; and from that cloth made everything from the family clothes to ticking, sheets, blankets, and quilts. “Little girls of four wept over their pricked fingers as they struggled with their first quilt patches…,” writes one author. One little girl finished piecing her first quilt in time for her 5th birthday! (Hedges, p.295)
Pioneer homes were often one big room, with a fireplace at one side and a large bedstead next to it. The bed was central to pioneer homes and lives. People were conceived, born, nursed, and died in the bed. Quilts were used:

As ‘mattress pads’ over the ticking, which might be of corn husks or straw or other rough materials; quilts provided padding;
As blankets – to provide warmth for settlers.
As bedspreads, or covers for the bed – to make them presentable, even beautiful, given that they were in the middle of the room;
As privacy shelters, hung down over the sides of beds.
As a ‘roof’ for the bed, providing protection from bugs and other things that might fall down on one in the middle of the night;
Further, quilts were used on windows (to darken a room, keep out drafts),
And as doors in early log cabins.

So important was fabric in pioneer settler homes that cloth was understood as a rare and precious commodity. Lists of household goods listed every blanket and quilt; wills often specified the disposition of quilts. When “loyalists” to the British throne fled from the lower states following the American Revolution, or when soldiers fled France after the Napoleonic Wars ended, many came to Canada. As part of their allotment from the fledgling territorial governments, each person over 10 was given a blanket; women and girls were given allotments of cloth – 2 yards of woolen cloth and 4 yards of linen, and out of this they had to clothe themselves and provide bedding for the family. Is it any wonder that people wrote back to France or Scotland or Germany begging for quilts and cautioning relatives to bring bedding if they moved to the territories? With thermometers reaching 20 degrees below zero, many people died of the cold.
In this environment, all scraps of clothing and remnants of tattered blankets were used to make patchwork quilts. “Out of scarcity, deprivation, dispossession, and sheer need among immigrants from many ethnic backgrounds grew the upper Canadian tradition of quilts…” writes McKendry. What is sometimes hard to remember is that these quilts were entirely made by hand. Not all were “homespun” -- some women brought cloth with them from their homelands or were able to buy cloth from England or cotton from the U.S.-- but all the piecing and quilting was done by tired hands that had already spent a day in the fields or in the house doing chores and raising a family. As one woman’s scrapbook put it, “the long sacrifice of women’s days passes without a thought, without a word.” (Hedges, 293) Diaries of women from the early and mid- 1800’s often include entries such as “sewed all the time I could get” or “stitched day after day from morning until night.” (Hedges, 294) Some historians estimate that women spent up to 80% of their waking hours in the production of cloth, clothing, and bedding.

In short, quilts were as essential as bread! They were a necessity, a staple of pioneer living. Quilting in those days was equivalent to “daily bread.” It does not sound like fun, though there are also indications that some women enjoyed quilting and looked forward to winter, when they would do most of it. But at root, quilting was necessary work.

Scenario #2: Fast forward to around 1900. The sewing machine was invented in 1846 and household machines began to be available by 1851. Even in rural areas, women are able to get access to sewing machines—whether their own or shared. This greatly reduces the time needed for making sheets, blankets, quilts, and clothes. The use of repeated blocks has become very popular in part because the straight sides of blocks are easy to sew together on a machine. (Curves will still be used in appliqué work, but will not become popular on the sewing machine itself for many decades.) Further, by 1900 stores are carrying manufactured sheets and blankets, freeing women from the necessity to make all the household linens. Urbanization is happening, and with it, some division of labor where women are confined to the home and constrained by concepts of the “good wife,” promulgated by magazines such as Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book. This magazine, with a wide circulation, has been carrying quilt patterns for some time, and women have adopted many of those patterns. But as women gain leisure time and at the same time are supposed to be in the home keeping up standards of beauty, industry, and spirituality, the “crazy quilt” comes into fashion. These quilts are not made from ordinary scraps of cotton or wool, but from silk, velvet, organza, and other exotic fabrics. Crazy quilts were usually ornamental – made to be tossed over tables or the backs of chairs. They required huge investments of time, as each individual piece to be included might be embroidered and then, once the pieces were joined, fancy embroidery stitches were used over all the seams. Women still make utilitarian quilts, but quilts made in the “parlor” [ie: where others could see them] were made for decoration, to show off one’s skills. Quilts are now both “bread” and “roses”--no longer strictly a necessity, now they exhibit women’s creative skill and signify women’s spiritual role in the family.

Scenario #3: Fast-forward another hundred years – it is now the year 2000. Only a few women still make quilts out of necessity (the Amish, some Mennonite groups; until they were discovered and made famous, the women of Gees Bend in Alabama). Most women are not quilting out of necessity but out of a desire to express their creativity. Quilts are made as often to hang on the wall as to cover a bed. They have moved from being “bread” to being almost entirely “roses.” Some women still quilt by hand, but most use sewing machines or hire the quilting done by professional quilters using long-arm machines that are computer-programmed to quilt fancy designs. The explosion of technology for quilting is staggering: long-arm quilting machines that cost as much as a new car, computerized home quilting machines (also very expensive), fancy rulers and cutters, computer programs for designing quilts, pre-printed backing fabrics to make it easier to set pieces exactly, fabric glue for those who don’t like sewing at all, fancy quilting frames for those who still want to do hand work – even the lowly needle has changed, though it is about the only thing that still resembles its parallel from 100 years before.


These three historical moments, reflected in the scenarios above, show something of the impact of technology on quilting and hence on women’s lives. Women did and do quilt – to make both utilitarian and beautiful quilts. But the processes by which they did so changed dramatically. The invention of the sewing machine may not have liberated women from the demand to make quilts, but it changed the time needed for quilting. The invention of the cotton gin that led to the development of cotton mills (the first cotton mill in Canada was in Sherbrooke in Quebec) not only brought in the “industrial age,” but also made cotton available to women who had never had it before. This may have been particularly important in Western territories in Canada. (One commentator says that quilting in Western Canada followed the trend in Eastern Canada, but in a more condensed fashion.) The railroad that brought sewing machines to rural areas made a huge difference. (BC would not join Canada without the promise of a railroad link.)

I believe that quilts have always been both bread and roses – that even in the early days when quilts were a necessity, they also spoke to a creative urge and satisfied something in women’s spirituality. One pioneer woman is quoted as writing, “I make them warm so my family doesn’t freeze; I make them beautiful so my heart doesn’t break.”

But it is clear that, historically, changes in technology permitted quilts to move from being “bread” to being “roses.” As Elaine Hedges puts it, “quilts became a vehicle through which women could express themselves; utilitarian objects elevated through enterprise, imagination, and love to the status of an original art form.” Quilts never stopped being hard work: one 77 year old made a quilt for President Benjamin Harris (in 1890) and noted that she had threaded the needle 777 times “entirely by myself,” and that her quilt contained one hundred and thirty nine yards of straight work, 12 yards of chain work, one square of small shells in the center, 33 feathers, and 10 stars. I take the fact of recording of such details to be an indication of a desire for the world to appreciate the time and care that a quilt took, whether utilitarian or not.
Even with machines that cut exact size pieces and other machines that do the final quilting, the making of a quilt is typically a long and arduous task (in spite of all the ‘quilt in a day’ books!). Technology speeds up some parts of the process and may permit women who enjoy quilting to make more quilts than previous generations could; still, there are records of women making – entirely by hand—over 100 quilts in their lifetimes.

Quilting is both bread and roses, but the history of quilting suggests that it has moved in Canada and the United States from being “bread” or a necessary staple of life to being “roses” – an expression of women’s spirituality and creativity.

Given the cold Canadian climate, you might think that wool would be preferred, but one pioneer wrote that woolen quilts were “so heavy that, two of them on you, you couldn’t turn over to save your life.” (McKendry, 9)