A new American folk art is born from an abundance of cotton and the new textile mills.


Harris Family, Quilt, 1815-1835. Atlanta History Center.


The rise of cotton farming and manufactured cloth in the early 1800s meant that the cost of fabric was less than ever before. As a result, quilting became a popular pastime for early American women. To make a quilt, women bought fabrics in a variety of colors and stitched them together to create elaborate geometric designs or pictures. Then they would stitch the finished piece to two other layers of fabric to create a three-dimensional effect. Quilting was a way women could express their creativity and showcase their skill with a needle and thread. The size of quilts meant that quilting could also be a social activity. Quilting bees were popular social events that brought together many women to create one quilt.

About the Image

This is the unfinished top piece of a quilt that was made in Georgia. The quilter cut three different fabric colors into elaborate shapes and sewed them onto a white background to create birds, trees, fruit, and baskets. Sewing smaller pieces of fabric onto a larger piece to create a design is called appliqué. Seeing this piece in its unfinished state gives the viewer a sense of just how much labor went into creating a finished quilt.

Discussion Questions

  • What do you think it would it be like to make a quilt? What does this tell us about the lives of women in the early United States?
  • How does this unfinished quilt reflect the changes taking place in early American society and in the economy?
  • Should quilts be considered works of art? Why or why not?

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