“How Textile Arts Have Empowered Women to Express Themselves Throughout American History” by Julia Carey
Magnificat, April 2022
The varied world of so-called “women’s work” has spanned centuries and evolved along with the roles of women in American society. Crafts such as sewing, quilting, embroidery, and knitting have always been an outlet for women to utilize their creativity in a way accepted by society. Additionally, these activities have evolved to create opportunities for political or societal commentary in the 21st century. Both in past and in present, “Needlework is the one art in which women controlled the education of their daughters, the production of the art, and were also the audience and critics” (Mainardi).
During Colonial times, women infrequently made quilts due to the lack of access to textiles (Brenemen). Knitting was more practical since wool was easily available (Breneman). Some wealthier women made coverlets (Brick). Arguably, the most significant textile art during this time was embroidery. Wealthier families taught their daughters to embroider as part of their limited education. The samplers of 18th-century American women are often “all that remains to testify to the otherwise unrecorded lives of their makers” (Peck). These samplers recorded religious messages, alphabets, and scenes of daily life. Women of this time became property of their husbands and found little recognition or artistic allowance, but embroidery samplers were an exception: “Every sampler is a historical record of one girl’s educational training and the type and value placed on that education. The overall design, materials used, and design motifs give evidence of her culture, religion, social class, and personal artistic accomplishments and abilities” (Davis). Samplers became a personal accomplishment in addition to a skill to attract suitors.
From the 1840s on, an expanded textile industry allowed a wider range of women to create pieced quilts with squares and rectangles of fabric forming designs (Brick). This resulted from the Industrial Revolution, as American factories produced cheap cottons in a variety of patterns (Women’s Work). Pioneer women held quilting bees as a social but productive event, sitting around a large quilting frame (Frontier Quilts). Double Wedding ring quilts were used for weddings of loved ones, often made as gifts from mother to daughter (Frontier Quilts). Another type of sentimental quilt was the autograph quilt, often made up of blocks with plain fabric in the center so a quilting club or group of friends could bid farewell to a departing friend and remain in her memory each time she viewed the quilt (Frontier Quilts).
During the Civil War, women found ways to assist in the war effort using textile arts. They knit socks, gloves, and other items for utilitarian purposes. It is estimated that over 250,000 quilts and comforters had been made for soldiers by the end of the war (Breneman). Additionally, women made beautiful rather than functional pieces for sale. In the North, silk fabrics were pieced (stitched together, forming a hidden seam) to be sold at fairs to support Union war costs (Breneman). In the South, women appliqued (stitched a cut shape of fabric on top of another) floral cutouts to create elaborate quilts, raising money for three gunboats (Breneman).
As women pushed for suffrage and rights traditionally given to men, they utilized “women’s work.” Between 1908 and 1913 the Artists’ Suffrage League embroidered over 150 protest banners to support the women’s suffrage movement (McCracken). The use of a traditionally feminine craft to state messages about the rights of women appeared a powerful juxtaposition at the time. They “repurposed a craft associated with the private domestic sphere to make a public case for suffrage” (McCracken). Across the seas, embroidery carried just as much weight: After being arrested for protesting, British suffragette Janie Terrero embroidered a handkerchief to pass time in jail, referencing her membership in the WSPU and naming other suffragettes who were fed by force (Wheeler). Similar themes would be reflected in 21st century American samplers carrying subversive feminist messages such as “Don’t tell me to smile” (McCracken). The association of embroidery with domesticity made it an ideal medium for women to express their political sentiments both subtly and boldly.
In the early 20th century a new wave of industrialization spurred creative dressmaking. The spread of the sewing machine made it possible to complete necessary sewing more quickly, leaving more time for artistic creations (Brick). Mass market patterns became popularized. Newspapers often had sections dedicated to clothes patterns. In 1926, despite the growing popularity of ready-made garments, “98 percent of rural respondents and 92 percent of urban respondents owned a sewing machine. A contemporaneous survey by the Bureau of Home Economics (then part of the Department of Agriculture), found that at least 80 percent of women surveyed made at least some clothing for themselves and their children” (Gordon). Throughout the first decades of the 20th century, women continued to participate in the tradition of clothes-making to create customized and less expensive clothing for themselves and their families.
During the Great Depression, society relied on women’s skills as seamstresses, harkening back to a pre-Civil War time when pioneer women had to make all the clothes their families wore (Gordon). Although mass-manufactured clothing was available, it was an expense that most could not afford (Gordon). Many women made quilts and clothes from feed-sacks. “At a time when many people felt they had lost control, [choice in] details such as how they could dress themselves and their families was a great help” (Gordon). Creating clothes and bedding was an opportunity for creativity as well as a necessity.
From World War II on, the practice of quilting and other crafts generally decreased. Women entered the workplace in large numbers due to wartime necessity and industrialization, and therefore had less personal time. Though these crafts never disappeared, they were revitalized starting in the 1970s (Brick). One contributor to the renewal of interest in quilts was the American Bicentennial museum exhibit of quilts in 1976 (Knauer).
One of the most important quilting movements of the 20th century began in an isolated Alabama town. The African-American quilters of Gee’s Bend utilized scraps of old clothing to form minimalist geometric patterns out of clothing scraps beginning in the late 19th century (Wallach). Gee’s Bend’s “eye-poppingly gorgeous quilts turn out to be some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced” (Kimmelman). With solid colors and geometric patterns, they represent landmarks in the civil rights movement and important events such as the death of a loved one. Their significance has only recently become recognized (starting in the early 2000s), selling for thousands of dollars and being displayed in prominent museums (Wallach). The Gee’s Bend quilts constitute an important piece of quilting innovation.
In recent years, the “women’s work” passed down from mother to daughter has transformed into hobbies accessed through resources. Thousands of books, magazines, and programs on quilting, clothes sewing, crafts, embroidery, and more have been released (Brick). The internet has encouraged creative strides and increased in interest in these crafts, particularly during Covid-19 isolation (Meiling). Many Millennials and members of Gen-Z acquire these skills via YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, TikTok, and similar platforms (Steinkopf-Frank). The internet and social media offer a dizzying display of possible patterns and inspiration (Meiling). For the beginner, there are plentiful how-tos. For all arts, blogs have become a popular way to spread ideas (Meiling). Such developments make these crafts far more accessible to those outside of the traditional crafter’s stereotype: a grandmotherly American white woman with old-fashioned preferences (Steinkopf-Frank). The members of these new textile arts communities are far younger, more multicultural, and include men and the LGBTQ community (Knauer). Although individuals of different races and cultures have always participated in these crafts, there is now more exposure for multiculturally influenced crafts. Men in particular were restricted from participating in crafts that traditionally espoused feminine values. Additionally, “mainstream sewing companies have moved slowly to market to men. There might be many men who sew, but don’t publicly share their creations, since the perception that this is ‘women’s work’ has lingered” (Steinkopf-Frank). Despite remaining stigma, there are small but significant groups of men visibly participating in these crafting communities. For example, Norris Dánta Ford is a home sewist and fashion designer who “ is often the only man in a craft store” (Steinkopf-Frank). Finding that these establishments mostly catered towards women, he started a Facebook group of 200 male sewists (Steinkopf-Frank).
As the people involved in textile arts communities have shifted over the decades, so have the arts in which they create. Embroidery designs today are often characterized as “subversive,” containing curse words and feminist ideas (Kim). They espouse the idea that “there’s an undeniable satisfaction in pulling thread through the last letter-limb of an embroidered expletive or sewing up the image of a raised fist” (Kim). Current embroidery and cross stitch designs further their legacy of political use, juxtaposing ideas of delicacy and femininity with bold calls to action, echoing the era of suffrage.
Another textile art that has experienced a recent resurgence is the creation of clothing. Clothes-making can be a way for individuals to express their unique identities, creating gender-neutral pieces and personally tailored designs. Creating one’s own clothes offers a rebuke to the world of fast fashion (Bain). “Within the digital dressmaking community there is evidence that sewists use their blogs to critically consider their craft in a range of ways including its relationship to feminism, as well as undertaking practices that connect with the feminist goals of social justice and community-building” (Bain). For instance, “#vintagestylenotvintagevalues is a popular hashtag, with retro-style sewists disavowing regressive gender politics and racism” (Steinkopf-Frank). New members of the dressmaking community are eager to create more open communities while using their creative platforms to express social and political commentary.
Today, quilts are exhibited in major museums and quilt shows, especially in the United States (Brick). They are bold, bright, and modern, also offering a canvas for powerful messages. The organization Social-Justice Sewing Academy teaches young people to make quilts displaying or implying social messages important to them (Hough). “It is all about youth empowerment and agency,” Trail says. “At first glance, SJSA is an organization that seeks to empower youth to create social justice art, but beyond the art it is really about empowering youth to think about how they can create change that is bigger than themselves” (Hough).
Women’s work is now recognized for what it has always been: art. Textile arts should be acknowledged for their significant role in American history. At times when women were not regarded as true artists and were only allowed to contribute to society in narrow ways, women used these socially accepted skills to their fullest potential. The evolution of crafts such as sewing, embroidery, and quilting is directly related to significant events: wars, depressions, migrations. Building on this rich past, textile arts have become accessible and innovative forms of expression.
 “Marriage and property laws, or “coverture,” stipulated that a married woman did not have a separate legal existence from her husband. A married woman or femme covert was a dependent, like an underage child or a slave, and could not own property in her own name or control her own earnings” (“Women and the Law”).
 The Women’s Social and Political Union, a leading party for women’s suffrage in Britain (Wheeler).
 Suffragettes often protested while in prison by going on hunger strikes, sometimes leading authorities to feed them by force (Cook).
 Feed sacks were patterned bags used for cotton. They were frequently repurposed during the 1930s for those lacking money as fabric and new clothes were too expensive (Brick).
 Quilt shows first began as 19th century country fairs, evolving into major competitions starting with the 1933 World’s Fair (Brick).
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