Monday, August 12, 2019

A Quilting Thread #1: Oral Histories

Photo from an online auction

A few weeks ago one of the social media quilt groups discussed the price of quilting over the years. Many remember their mothers and grandmothers quilting for pay and some of them have done it themselves. Comments in that thread below, a form of oral history (digital oral history?)

North Carolina, 1935
Library of Congress

About 1900
The pictures have no real connection to the stories but certainly offer
history in themselves.

Jean recalled:
 "My great grandmother quilted for other people in the 1930s to be able to pay for rent and groceries. I dimly remember overhearing in my childhood my mother saying she was paid 50 cents per spool of thread used. Does this seem like a reasonable amount for the times? That would mean that if she used 2 spools to quilt a top she was paid $1.00. ....She lived in a small rural Kentucky town, and I’m sure her clients would have been from the same county."
Missouri, 1960s

There was discussion about the charge of 50 cents per spool. Jean's great-grandmother lived
in a small town during the Depression so people elsewhere may have paid more.

Hazel: "My grandmother took in quilt tops... I think it was probably 50 cents a spool in the 1930/40s. She lived in Salem, Iowa."

Oregon, About 1900

Diane's first thought: "I would have used little spools." 

Charging by the spool was the classic price determinant.

Laura L: "The smaller and closer together the quilting the larger the amount of thread and pay."

Spools varied in how much thread was wound around them. The Best Cord 40-weight above had 200 yards per spool.

Marie Webster of Indiana in her 1915 book Quilts gave some information:

"A spool of cotton thread, such as is found in every dry-goods store, averaging two hundred yards to the spool, is the universal measure. The price charged is more a matter of locality than excellence of workmanship. [In the past] one dollar per spool was the usual price paid..." 

She apparently was paying $5 a spool in Indiana in the teens. (Seems quite inflationary!)

New York City, 1940s-'50s
New York Public Library

The $1 a spool price seems to have become the standard quoted in books and magazine articles in the mid-20th-century, probably based on Webster's book, the standard for quilt history for many years.

Bunny looked it up: "Thread cost and sizes from '30s = 10c per spool; 125 yds per spool."

1948 Anna Huber Good

Some readers remembered hand quilting themselves for pay.

Diane "did hand quilting for people up until the late 90's. I charged .50/yd of thread , I measured a yard and threaded the needle. I know you shouldn't have that much on a needle, but it made it easy to keep track and it worked for me."

Montana, 1961

Laura "quilted with a church group in the 80's and we charged so much for the first spool then by the yard after that. We measured out yards of thread and kept track. With the yard on the needle we went to the half on the first stitch, then quilted from each end of the thread. My son (a toddler) used to come and play under the quilt frame."

Laura S. "I remember church groups charging by the spool and that was in the 1990s. I think it was $5 per spool but I don't know the size of the spool."

About 1970

Quilters also charged a flat rate per quilt, which is what I recall when I
had hand quilters finish the old tops I bought in thrift stores in the 1970s.

"My mom was machine quilting in the '50s-70s and only charged $5 a quilt."

Dianna: "My granny was paid $5 per quilt for hand quilting."

Gail: " I remember paying $20 to have a queen-size quilt quilted back in the early 70's. Quilter charged $18 but my husband gave her $20, being 'generous'."

California Migrant Camp, Late 1930s
Library of Congress

Diana: "My mom hand quilted for people She charged $20 for a double bed size quilt....she did such beautiful hand work. Tiny stitches."

Marji still hand quilts with a charity group. Like many long-arm quilters they calculate square footage:

"We have a quilting bee at the Gilbert [Arizona] Historical museum. We charge by the square foot. All quilts are hand quilted by wonderful quilters who volunteer their time. $7 a square foot."

Texas, 1960s?

And Virginia explains a new pricing system:

"My Mom quilts with a church group. They charge $50 to put the quilt in the frame and then charge by the number of quilters per day x the number of days worked (sorry but I don't know what figure they are currently using). I know that Mom was fussing about how high the bill was getting on a quilt with a lot of quilting until I pointed out that they were still way less than what a longarmer would charge."

New York, New York Public Library, 1970s?

The Busy Bees at the Methodist Church
Texas, 2012

Following this thread tomorrow: We'll continue looking at prices for quilting using published accounts.


  1. My mothers quilt frame hung from the ceiling. It was lowered to work on it and raised to the ceiling when finished. I played under it while she was quilting. She gave me scraps of fabric which I used to make doll clothes. I loved being under that quilt frame.
    I enjoyed the photos.

  2. As a teenager I was given two hand quilted single bed quilts from the late 1920s or early 30s. My farmer grandfather had bought them at a neighbor's yard sale during the Depression in West Virginia. He paid fifty cents each so the folks could get some money for everything (very hard times). Not about thread, but a different train of thought about the value of quilts. My daughters have them now, each got one as a 40th birthday present because they had loved them so much as children and teens.

  3. I am currently looking for someone or group to hand quilt for me but no luck. I pieced the quilt myself but arthritis won't allow me to continue. I live near Houston if anyone can help. I can't imagine machine quilting it...it took two years!

  4. My sister in law found some Amish women to do a quilt from her grandmother a decade or so ago. I suspect there won't be an Amish community just there near Houston. Ohio, Maryland, Pennsylvania, maybe.

  5. In the mid 1970's as a young bride I wasn't working so was bored. I joined the elderly ladies at our church's quilting group. I watched and asked questions as one would use fake leather... some kind of vinyl often used for covering soft furniture. This was cut in squares as a template for cutting, with scissors after marking with pencil around the template and sew them into 4-patches. Another layered polyester double knit scraps on muslin scrap squares and with a long zig-zag attach them to the background fabric to make free utility quilts to be given to the needy. Those quilts would be tied, and I learned how to do that. At another quilt frame there was sometimes a Special Quilt, that would be hand quilted by those who were skilled. They would get paid for that. My experience with these ladies was my first quilting experience.