Women and Quilting: The Social Significance of Women’s Craftwork in Idaho

Photograph by Martina Ashman

Along with its practical function, quilting also played a significant role in stitching together the fabric of Idaho society. Quilting parties or “quilting bees” provided an opportunity for women to commune with one another and to share their ideas and opinions.  While quilting parties took place across the United States in the 19th century, they held a particular significance in the West where other social outlets for women were limited by the large distance between homes and the unreliability of the post.   Furthermore, the limited availability of new fabrics created an impetus for women to come together and share fabrics among themselves.  The sharing of fabric meant that quilts became truly communal works and in such helped to solidify friendships between the women who had collaborated.

Quilting bees played an important role in the larger community as well.  Collective work on a quilt created an occasion for multiple families to come together and quilting parties were often all day long events(1).  Along with quilting, families partake in large meals together, dancing and otherwise celebrating(2).  The social significance of the quilting party was captured in the popular 19th century folk song, “The Quilting Party” which tells the tale of a young man and woman falling in love at a quilting bee. Here one can see the central role that quilting could play in the society of 19th century Idaho.

Quilting similarly provided women in Idaho with a chance for activism and involvement in social and political movements(3).  Quilts made using silk or other prized fabrics, or sometimes including a scrap of fabric once belonging to a local celebrity, would be auctioned at church or agricultural fairs to raise money for various causes(4).   For example a women’s church group in Melba, Idaho raised thousands of dollars for polio victims around the turn of the century by auctioning quilts they had made.   Quilt sales proved to be a lucrative way to church’s to raise money as well.