“There’s history sewn into quilts, one patch at a time,” Iolan Judy McGraw said of the historical significance of the functional and artistic medium.
McGraw presented a brief example of the history of quilting, along with examples of her own creations, during the Allen County Historical Society’s summer meeting Tuesday evening.
McGraw started her presentation at the most basic — “what is a quilt?” She explained the decorative side, the backing, patterns and the batting — the filling material inside the quilt.
Her historical descriptions started with the ancient Egyptians, and then moved forward to more modern times.
“Years were spent quilting and making them,” she said.
Quilts were originally meant as a functional household item, McGraw said. Before textiles, it was one of the few ways for people to stay warm. Even after textile manufacturing came to the United States in the 1800s, the Civil War created issues. The cotton was produced in the south, but the north had the textile mills. Women from both sides of the war were forced to return to their skills of handcrafting quilts.
Abolitionists used quilt patterns as signals to the runaway slaves as well. They would hang log cabin quilts on the railings of their homes to signal a safe house.
Following the war, McGraw said quilting took more of a recreational and artistic vein. Women began experimenting with different styles in the 1920s and 1930s. Newspapers, like the Kansas City Star, began publishing different quilting patterns once a week for women to try their hand.
Yet, once again, families were forced handcraft quilts for survival in the Great Depression. Following World War II, quilting took a dramatic plunge in popularity due to the rise in technology and manufacturing.
“For many, quilting was seen as lean times and making due,” McGraw said.
In the late 1960s quilting made a comeback, however, and has remained popular in the United States. She said the uses of quilting are endless — from artistic expression, providing warmth or recording a family’s history.
MCGRAW SHOWED OFF her own creations as well during the meeting.
The stacks of handcrafted quilts were only a fraction of the quilts she has made.
When asked how many she had made, she simply replied, “I don’t know.”
One by one, she showed the quilts — designs of state birds, flowers, signature quilts from weddings and grand champion fair winning quilts.
McGraw began quilting when she was just 11, and has been honing her craft ever since. She showed the first quilt she created, a brown and yellow patterned design. She said it was simple, if even by her standards — the audience was still impressed.