Quilt-making describes the process used by individuals and groups to sew decorative bed covers from layers of fabric, either for personal use or for sale. South Carolina quilts have changed over time, reflecting the influences of geography, historical events, technological innovations, economic circumstances, ethnic traditions, and personal aesthetics.
The earliest settlers in South Carolina depended on trans-oceanic trade for their household goods. Bedcovers were among the most common household textiles in the American colonies. As quilts became popular in Western Europe during the late eighteenth century, they also appeared in South Carolina. Only wealthy families could afford the expensive fabrics used for quilts during this time. Among the earliest styles was the whole-cloth quilt, which was made from two large sheets of silk or cotton fabric with a layer of loose cotton between them often sewn together with a decorative pattern of stitches.
Early South Carolina quilts were also made from printed cotton fabrics imported from India or Europe. Quilt makers cut out the individual floral motifs from printed chintzes and sewed them to plain foundations in pleasing arrangements. Another European needlework technique popular in Charleston in the early nineteenth century was English-template piecing, or mosaic patchwork. In this technique, small geometric shapes—often hexagons—were cut from paper and covered fabric, and then the covered motifs were sewn together to form a design. Many fine early-nineteenth-century chintz and mosaic patchwork quilts survive from coastal South Carolina.
African Americans, both enslaved and free, made quilts. Some slaveowners supplied families with purchased blankets, while others directed the production of thick, homemade, whole-cloth comforters. Skillful seamstresses made fine quilts for their owners or clients, and some acquired fabrics to make quilts for their own use. While most surviving nineteenth-century quilts made by African Americans resemble those made by European Americans, there is some evidence of the survival of African design elements.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, distinctly American styles of patchwork quilts developed in the Delaware Valley. Combining British needlework techniques with German decorative traditions to produce bold geometric designs in contrast- ing colors, the new styles entered South Carolina through coastal cities and inland routes into the backcountry. In the same period, New England textile mills produced affordable fabrics, replacing imports for everyday clothing and household needs. Quilt-making became popular among middle-class women, and South Carolina quilts made in the second half of the nineteenth century display a wide variety of techniques, patterns, and color combinations.
Quilt pattern diagrams were published in popular periodicals in the 1890s. As a result, regional patterns were distributed nationally, many new patterns emerged, and some old patterns were given names for the first time. The development of textile mills in South Carolina near the end of the century made fabric more available, and even poor families could afford cloth for quilts.
Although by 1900 quilts were considered old-fashioned and quaint, and upper- and middle-class women turned to other types of needlework, within a few years the country experienced the colonial revival movement, which encouraged Americans to emulate the activities and values of their colonial ancestors. Urban middle class women took up quilt-making as a hobby, although the designs they produced were influenced more by contemporary styles than by actual historical quilts. The popularity of quilt-making during the 1920s and 1930s was fueled by women’s magazines and mail-order pattern companies.
Quilt-making declined during World War II. During the 1950s quilt-making continued as a low-profile activity without attention from popular media. A renewed interest in quilt-making emerged in the late 1960s and spread rapidly during the late twentieth century. Throughout South Carolina quilt clubs, called “guilds,” formed during the 1980s. Quilt guilds provided opportunities for their members to meet and to learn, and they sponsored public quilt shows and raised money for charitable causes.
One widespread misconception is that the earliest American quilts were made by frontier settlers from fabric scraps in the absence of other bedcovers and that quilts only later developed decorative properties. During the late twentieth century, as scholars examined historic quilts and supporting documents they published books and curated exhibitions that more accurately portray the history of quilt-making. In 1983–1985 McKissick Museum and the South Carolina State Museum sponsored a survey of South Carolina quilts. Exhibitions and publications by South Carolina museums have provided the public with a better understanding of the state’s quilts.
South Carolina quilt-makers continue to make quilts for the same reasons as those of earlier generations: to engage in a satisfying creative activity, to produce beautiful objects of lasting value for family and friends, and to make connections with other people. See plates 14 and 35.
Charleston Museum. Mosaic Quilts: Paper Template Piecing in the South Carolina Lowcountry. Greenville and Charleston, S.C.: Curious Works Press and The Charleston Museum, 2002.
Horton, Laurel, and Lynn Robertson Myers. Social Fabric: South Carolina’s Traditional Quilts. Columbia, S.C.: McKissick Museum, 1985.