Tracing the Roots and History of Modern Memory Quilt Making

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“Quilts carry memory and meaning. They also carry myth.” 

― International Quilt Study Center & Museum

People all over the world have celebrated major life events through the creation of special and meaningful textiles. In Central Asia, traditional quilts marked life transitions and protected the recipient and her home from menacing forces.

In the United States, quilts have also been used to commemorate life events.  American Signature quilts of the 1800's – group projects where each block was sewn or signed by a different person – were often made for a family or friend. They memorialized events, like weddings, births, deaths, and moving west, or they were created as fundraisers for the local community.

In the past century, quilt studies have been focused on dispelling myths surrounding American quilts. The signatures and dates on Signature quilts provide clues for researchers that un-signed quilts do not. Along with stories of friends and community, the true history of the quilt could also be verified.

Which leads in to the next notion of contemporary memory quilting - the utilization of clothing to construct the quilts. In Central Asia, scraps and small pieces of fabric (sometimes called älem)  are thought to have served to ward off destructive forces at sacred sites at the graves of heroes, ancestors and saints. Patchwork was seen as valuable for practical and spiritual purposes.

Popular belief holds that American quilts of the past were stitched for necessity from recycled scraps of fabrics from dresses and other items no longer of use. Quilt historians refer to this notion as the "scrap bag myth". Typically, early American quilts of the Colonial era were whole cloth quilts made with expensive imported fabric, not scraps.

Passage quilting, Sherri Lynn Wood
Photo courtesy of Sherri Lynn Wood

So when does scrap quilt making and the usage of clothing for quilts come into the picture? By the 1830's inexpensive printed cotton fabrics were readily available due to the Industrial Revolution. It was only at this time that American women began making patchwork quilts. Quilt makers have rarely made quilts solely for utility. However, impoverished individuals who liked handwork would be more inclined to quilt with "make-do" fabrics, as many during the Great Depression did, to soothe souls as well as cover beds.

The Gee's Bend quilters are known for designing and piecing improvisational or "my way" quilts as far back as the mid 19th century. Until the mid 20th century, Gee's Bend quilts were often made from worn-out work clothes.

When Missouri Pettway's husband Nathaniel died, she relied on her art to create a quilt with the intention to provide protection, comfort, strength and solace for her grief. Her daughter Arlonzia Pettway (1923-2008) recalls making a memory quilt with her mother in 1942.

"It was when Daddy died.  I was about seventeen, eighteen.  He stayed sick about eight months and passed on.  Mama say, "I going to take his work clothes, shape them into a quilt to remember him, and cover up under it for love."

Blocks and Strips Work-Clothes Quilt,
Missouri Pettway, Gee's Bend, Alabama, 1942
Photo courtesy: Souls Grown Deep

Perhaps the most famous of memory quilts is the AIDS Memorial Quilt: The Names Project. Conceived by gay rights activist Cleve Jones, the project was started in 1987, not only to document the lives lost (that many feared history would forget), but also to help people understand the devastating impact of AIDS. 

The AIDS Memorial Quilt: The Names Project
Special Exhibition, QuiltCon 2018, Pasadena, CA
Photos by Suzanne Paquette

As times change, so does the clothing that we wear, and therefore the memory quilts we make. Though now commonplace, t-shirts are a relative newcomer to fashion, having been first seen 100 years ago. T-shirts skyrocketed in popularity in the 1950's after Marlon Brando wore one in "A Streetcar Named Desire". And, according to a CustomInk survey, 9 out of 10 Americans own at least one T-shirt they refuse to throw away because of sentimental attachment.

Intersections, Modern T-Shirt Quilt, Suzanne Paquette, Montreal, QC, 2018
Photo by Vivian Doan, from the book Modern Memory Quilts, Stash Books

Cue the t-shirt quilt. The first t-shirt quilts of the 1980's were modelled after the sampler album quilts of the past. Forty years later, the t-shirt quilt still remains in its original format, with quilters looking for new ways to refresh the concept with a modern aesthetic.

Regardless of when, where and how memory quilts are made, whether they utilize past traditions or invent new approaches, they continue to tell stories of lives lived, memories made, emotions felt and love shared.

The Here and Elsewhere Bee, Andrea Tsang-Jackson, Halifax, NS, 2017
Photo courtesy of Andrea Tsang-Jackson



Signature Quilts: Nineteenth-Century Trends by Brackman, Barbara Volume 10, 1989, pages 25-37

One Block at a Time:  Two Centuries of Sampler Quilts by Karr-Petras, Mary Kate, 2018

World Quilts – The American Story
International Quilt Study Center & Museum

The Signature Quilt Project
Researching Signature Quilts

By Amanda Sikarskie and Marsha MacDowell, Karen Alexander and Nancy Hornback

Cycles of Mourning and Memory: Quilts by Mother and Daughter in Gee’s Bend, Alabama
By Lisa Gail Collins

1 Arlonzia Pettway quoted in John Beardsley, William Arnett, Paul Arnett, and Jane Livingston, with an introduction by Alvia Wardlaw, Gee’s Bend: The Women and Their Quilts (Atlanta: Tinwood Books, 2002), 73. Curator and collector William Arnett conducted interviews with Arlonzia Pettway in August 2000 and February 2001. See Gee’s Bend, 423.

A short History of T-shirt Quilts by Andrea Funk, 2015.