Friday, August 24, 2018

Quilt Pictures: Tossing Out Some Basic Assumptions

Woman quilting in Woodville, California, 1942
Photo by Russell Lee for the W.P.A. Farm Security Administration.

During the Great Depression and into World War II the federal government
hired photographers to record rural life in hard times.

Family in Gees Bend

From California migrant camps to chronically poor Southern rural communities in Alabama, the photographers---most of them men---did a good job of recording women's activities.

Few names were recorded and little context given. 
The seamstress is identified as Mrs. L. Smith,
Carroll County, Georgia.

Mother of a tenant farmer piecing a log cabin block, 
Maricopa County, Arizona

Dorothea Lange was one woman who worked for the project.
Her photo of a "Migrant Mother" in California is an American icon,
capturing the pain and uncertainty of life as a displaced person.

Lange also photographed this woman and a man (perhaps her son or grandson)
quilting on a Chimney Sweep quilt in migrant housing in Kern County, California.

Another iconic image is Russell Lee's photo of a homeless woman quilting
in a smoke house in Hinesville, Georgia.

When I first saw these photos I was impressed by the role of quilting in people's lives and how  women manage to keep this great folk art alive despite hardships. But I've since learned a few things. One is that the Corn & Beans quilt that the woman above is quilting in a fan pattern is cheater cloth, pre-printed yardage in a patchwork design.

Family quilting in Mississippi by Russell Lee in 1939
This fan design looks like pre-printed cloth too.

The other insight is that many of these women are part of the commercial aspect of quiltmaking. I bet many of them were sewing and quilting to earn money. This turns a lot of my own long-held basic assumptions about quiltmaking around. Folk art; schmoke art. Keeping up one's spirits during financial disasters? I don't think so. Raising money to feed the kids is more likely.

Grant County, Illinois, 1940

When you are as poor as these women seem to be
spending one's time making pretty things for the house seems like a luxury.

Marion Post Wolcott, Missouri migrants airing their bedding in a Florida campsite.

Coffee County, Alabama
By Marion Post Wolcott, a second female photographer.

Spring cleaning or advertising quilts for sale?

Carding surplus cotton for batting in Kern County, California.

Some of the quiltmakers do seem to be making quilts for their own bedding.

Green County, Georgia, 1940. Jack Delano photo.

Green County, Georgia

Particularly these tied whole cloth pieces.

Whole cloth quilt in Coffey County, Alabama

Mrs. L.L. LeCompt, Coffee County, Georgia, 1939
Marion Post Wolcott, photo.

But I'd certainly like to know more about the economics
in these quilting communities. These women are not sewing as a hobby.

Read more about my new take on my old assumptions regarding folk art versus commercial art in my blog Woman's Work: Making a Living Making Quilts.

Most of the photos above are from the Library of Congress's webpage on Farm Security Photographs. Here's a search for quilt:


  1. Hobby, commercial, or a combination. My grandmother was poor and quilted for herself and for others. Quilting was how she expressed herself and how she earned needed cash.

  2. Growing up, I saw the quilts my grandmother had made, beautiful hand quilted scrappy quilts, right from her frame in the ceiling. My mother also made them...cottons and polyester! Tied and so warm and bright. I celebrate each of these women, who in their struggle, found a respite of color and warmth and communion with other women, with their quilts. Thank you so much for your website, which I enjoy each day!

  3. Indeed interesting. I remember when I first saw the two Russell Lee photos years ago I noticed that they were quilting what appeared to be cheater prints. Of course it never occurred to me that they might be working for pay. His photos of Pie Town, NM are haunting images.

  4. Some of these scenes may have been posed by the photographer in the same way Matthew Brady and assistants posed the corpses on Civil War battlefields to make them more dramatic and less painful to viewer sensibilities. I've wondered especially about the "smoke house quilter" with the cheater cloth AND the strong possibility that grease and/or curing solution was going to drip on her work. Fifty years ago when I married and moved from an industrial valley into a more rural area, many mature women were still quilting for others for cash and making quilts for self and family. There was still a sewing factory (polyester double knit days) where cut aways could be purchased very cheaply by the pound. Clothes lines were often draped with gaudy utility quilts made from this handy source. Now-a-days those quilters are gone. The one quilter I know does just adequate work at an amazingly high price.

  5. Truly an amazing post, one of my favorites. Yes, these women were poor and you are probably right about them quilting for money rather than only for pleasure. At least they could enjoy this kind of work. We have so much to be thankful for today. Just take a look at our fabric stashes!

  6. Wonderful post and so interesting to think about the women who worked tirelessly to keep things going for their families. Cheers to all of them.

  7. Yes, the economy was very different and life was different.
    I agree with JulieQ, 'celebrating each of these women, who in their struggle, found a respite of color
    and warmth and communion with other women, with their quilts.'
    Amen to that.

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  9. Great post!

    Reminds me of one of my favorite quilt history books, "Quilted All Day: The Prairie Journals of Ida Chambers Melugin", by Carolyn O'Bagy Davis.

    I just pulled the book off my shelf to read again.

  10. What a fascinating post! Women have always done what needed to be done to provide during hard times.