When I got my MA, I had to write a thesis. The challenge was coming up with some area of literature to analyze that had not been done a million times already. I love quilts and American lit., so I combined those to interests and somehow convinced my professors that enough short stories about quilts had been published in the 19th century to sustain my research. I found and read as many 19th century short stories as I could that had a quilt in them or in someway focused on the world of quilting. I then analyzed the quilt as a symbol in those stories.
It was actually pretty fascinating.
In most of the earlier quilt stories which were published in the 1840’s, quilts symbolized the domestic sphere and all acceptable womanly endeavors. The quilts were cherished objects and the quilters were kind and loving, representing all that was wonderful about being a woman.
As the century wore on, this changed. During the entire time period I studied, women had to sew, making all their family’s clothing and bedding. I can’t even imagine what a chore that would be for someone who hated sewing. Thus, by the end of the century, well known authors such as Louisa May Alcott and Mary Wilkins Freeman used the quilt to symbolize the stifling aspects of the Victorian era and the demands the “domestic sphere” placed on women. In their fiction, they describe quilters as gossipy, small-minded women and quilting bees as a never-ending miserable chore.
I have never seen quilts or quilting in this light. For me, a homemade quilt is an outlet for my own creativity. It also symbolizes my love for my family and friends through the time and effort they take to create, despite the benefit of a sewing machine.. I love quilts. I love that they symbolize my creativity, my hard work. I love that I work on them with a group of my dearest quilting friends, and we celebrate our roles as mothers and wives as we quilt, our own little modern “domestic sphere.” This view of quilts and quilting is much more similar to the earliest quilt fiction than to most of the stories published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In my current writing project, a quilt ties together the historical and contemporary threads of the story, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the historical significance of the quilt as a symbol of women’s lives and where my novel, which combines both worlds, fits.
I’m not sure if I can answer these questions, or if I even need to, but I’ve been wondering: What does a quilt symbolize now for women in general? Is it a symbol of creativity and choices in that women create them if they want to? Or for some women are they still symbols of stifled female ambitions as they were 100+ years ago? How do I honor my predecessors in quilt fiction? Does the quilt in my story even need to? Or does it just need to honor this story?
I guess I’ll find out the answers when I finish, but if anyone has any thoughts, I’d be interested to hear them.