Handmade quilts soften the edges of high-tech homes

I don’t know about you, but my weekly screen hours are grossly excessive. The more careful I am with my electronics, the more convinced I am that we need to surround ourselves with things you can’t plug in. Homes need living plants, stacks of books, original artwork, hand-knit blankets and craft quilts.

Alexa, can you make a quilt?


I’ve never quilted either, but I satisfy my curiosity by talking to serious quilters about the importance of craftsmanship in the American home.

“What other profession is creating something that keeps your loved ones warm?” asks Shannon Brinkley, quilt maker and teacher from Leesburg, Va. “It’s the perfect blend of functionality and beauty.”

“Every quilt tells a story,” says Carissa Heckathorn, director of the Iowa Quilt Museum and a quilter for more than 30 years. “A quilt from the 1800s can say a lot about the woman who made it. The quilt can tell you if the woman was utilitarian, quickly making quilts from scraps to keep her family warm, reusing old clothes because she had no money to buy fabric, or if she was an affluent woman of leisure, who could afford to buy matching fabrics and have the time to sew precisely cut appliqués.

I try to imagine what story my quilt would tell and imagine a random patchwork of worn yoga pants held together by chewing gum and staples.

According to a 2020 Craft Industry Alliance survey, quilting in North America is a $4.2 billion industry, with up to 12 million quilters – 98% of them women – practicing the craft. So I asked Brinkley and Heckathorn to tell me more.

Q: When did quilts come to America and how did they evolve?

Heckathorn: The first quilts probably arrived here in the 1500s. For European settlers, quilting was a popular pastime and a way for women to gather. Different quilt block designs have emerged to reflect women’s roles in the home as well as their religious and political views. During the Great Depression, women commonly made quilts from sacks of food. In the 1960s and 1970s we saw a lot of polyester in duvets. In the 1980s heavyweight cotton became popular and is what most quilters use today. As more tools became available, including rotary cutters with built-in rulers that simplified the cutting process, quilts became more commercial.

Q: How do people use duvets in homes today?

Heckathorn: The importance of the quilt in the American home has changed. Pioneer women made quilts not because they wanted to sew, but because their families needed them for warmth. Although we still use quilts for beds and cribs, we also see them as table tops or table runners, and hung as wall art, a luxury our ancestors did not have.

Brinkley: Although the art of quilting has been evolving for centuries, the pandemic has advanced the craft much faster thanks to social media. Today, quilters around the world are sharing their work online, inspiring new techniques, creating an artistic explosion.

Q: What are the basic types of quilts?

Brinkley: A quilt, by definition, is made up of three layers of fabric―a top, middle, and bottom―sandwiched, sewn, and bound at the edges. The top is where the action takes place. Today, the middle layer is often at bat. The three main styles of quilting are piecing, where you stitch together cut scraps to create a whole; appliqué, where you attach cut-out fabric shapes to the background fabric; and a whole fabric, where the top of the quilt, like the underside, is a solid piece of fabric. In this style, the quilt stitch design is the star.

Q: I’ve always imagined quilters as a group of gray-haired grannies getting together to chat and sew. But it’s clear that more and more young women are embracing the age-old craft.

Brinkley: While many women choose this hobby when they retire, many of my generation get into quilting when they start a family, and their nesting instincts are strong. Modern quilts often include bold colors and prints, high contrast, and solid color graphic areas.

Q: Is using a sewing machine considered cheating?

Heckathorn: Today it is assumed that if you are a quilter, you use a machine. Most quilters want to make as many quilts as possible and therefore use all the tools available. Hand sewing, although much admired, is rare.

Q: What do you wish more people knew about quilting?

Heckathorn: Quilts are for everyone, whether you buy them, inherit them, or make them. Especially in today’s high-tech society, the value of handmade art is gaining in importance.

Brinkley: That when you start it seems like you have to follow a lot of rules and be precise. Abandon perfection. The quilt police aren’t going to come by and say, “You have to do it this way. You don’t have to follow a pattern. Follow your heart.