|Quilting Bees in Earlier Times
Patricia L. Cummings
The American Quilting Party, Quilt Frolic, or Quilting Bee has been much celebrated in paintings, novels and song. Often, it
has been noted that there was much celebration at the end of the day with social activities, dancing and food. When did the
tradition begin? This essay is prompted by an inquiry from a reader who would like to know if quilting bees were common in
New England in 1787, and if quilting frames were used. To give more than just my own opinion, I turned to three books about
Colonial Life and New England Homes.
"A Quilting Bee in the Olden Time" by H. W. Pierce, an 1876 print
Daily Life in Colonial New England, by Claudia Durst Johnson (Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press, 2002) was the
first book to which I turned. I was disappointed to find that the author mentions quilts, only in the slightest way. She refers to
them as home interior decorations such as coverlets and other linens made by women of the seventeenth century (1600s.)
Clearly, this was not the kind of in-depth information I was after.
Alice Morse Earle's Classic 1898 Book
Next, I looked at Home Life in Colonial Days, written by Alice Morse Earle, in 1898, (Stockbridge, Massachusetts: Berkshire
Traveller Press, 1974/1992). On page 273, the author speaks of stretching patchwork over a lining, (type of cloth
unspecified). The quilters could then easily set around the quilting frame making their fancy lines of stitches. She adds, "I
know of a ten days' quilting bee in Narragansett (RI) in 1752." In this case, it is hard to ascertain how she "knew" of this
On page 274 of the same book, there is mention of using the good parts of old uniforms that were not riddled with moth
holes, as well as "well-worn" petticoats, and worn out flannel sheets, for creating quilts. Wool patchwork was done in New
England, so that is no surprise, although it would seem that if "ladies" were going to sit and quilt together, they might choose a
more worthy cloth for their efforts than spent rags.
Earle exclaims that a silk quilt, made from a wedding gown when Esther Powel married James Helme in 1738, was among the
nicest she had seen. However, the quilt was not finished until 1795, and only then by a hired woman who toiled for six weeks,
at the wage of $.20 cents per week, plus room and board.
Closing In On Documentation
Turning to a third volume, we find additional information. Author Jane C. Nylander reveals in Our Snug Fireside: Images of
the New England Home 1760-1860 (New York and London: Yale University Press, 1993) that Abner Sanger recalled quilting
parties as "early as 1778." She notes that Sarah Bryant's diary features six designs for quilting and she was apparently called
upon with frequency to draw quilting lines for the quilts of others.
On page 229, there is a photo of a quilting frame from Historic Deerfield, Inc., a museum in Massachusetts. To answer my
reader's question, quilting and quilting bees seem to have preceded and continued through and beyond the 1787 date in
question, frames were used, and so were wool and silk (often recycled petticoats that acted as warm additions to clothing
during the days when winters were so cold and there was no central heating).
Post Note: Quilting bees were well established by 1820 and continued on into the 1860s and 1870s.
A quilt entitled, "The Quilting Party" was made by Bertha Steng. An episode of "The Waltons" featured a quilting bee intended
to make a quilt for the oldest girl and her reactions to hearing that a quilt was being made for her.
©Copyright 2007-2014. Patricia L. Cummings, Quilter's Muse Publications, Concord, NH.