About the National Quilt Collection
The National Quilt Collection (view a video tour) contains both quilts made for functional, utilitarian purposes as bedding, and others made mainly for decorative purposes. The parlor throws or crazy quilts of the latter part of the 19th century, as well as more recent art quilts, are examples of quilts as ornamental objects. The Collection includes quilts that were made to exhibit needlework skills and were entered in contests or shown at fairs where they won prizes.
Many quilts in the Collection have inscriptions, a practice particularly popular after the mid-19th century, and are a textile record that expresses the interests and feelings of the makers. Symbolic motifs found on quilts attest to patriotic views, honor fraternal organizations or relate to major historical events. Some quilts were made to memorialize events—several in the Collection commemorate the 1876 Centennial by using souvenir fabrics in the construction, and another incorporates World War II slogans.
There are quilts in the Collection that represent both domestic household production and the growth of quilting as a commercial venture. Some of the earlier quilts were made of fabrics that were woven and dyed at home. Across the Collection, quilts contain fabrics that represent changes in the textile industry such as in the fabric printing process. Hand-sewn and quilted examples can be compared and contrasted to machine-sewn quilts as the availability of home sewing machines expanded. Other quilt examples utilized commercial patterns or were made from kits that could be purchased, a quilt marketing phenomenon that began in earnest in the early 20th century.
While many of the quilts were made by women, the Collection also has examples, some as early as the mid-19th century, that were made by men. The Collection incorporates quilts from various ethnic groups and social classes, for quilts are not the domain of a specific race or class, but can be a part of anyone’s heritage and treasured as such. Whether of rich or humble fabrics, large in size or small, expertly crafted or not, well-worn or pristine, quilts in the National Quilt Collection provide a textile narrative that contributes to America’s complex and diverse history.
The National Quilt Collection, part of the Division of Home and Community Life textiles collection at the National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center, had its beginnings in the 1890s. Three quilts were included in a larger collection of 18th- and 19th- century household and costume items donated by John Brenton Copp of Stonington, Connecticut. From this early beginning, the Collection has grown to more than 500 quilts and quilt-related items, mainly of American origin, with examples from many states, including Alaska and Hawaii. Most of the contributions have come to the Museum as gifts, and many of those are from the quilt-makers’ families. Quilt donations continue to be accepted in areas where the Collection has needs.