Women brought the art of quilting to Texas and have continued to practice it, passing the tradition down through succeeding generations and ultimately making it one of the highly valued domestic arts. During the westward expansion, making quilts was a routine part of the domestic training given to young girls in the United States, where the patchwork quilt was well established as the main form of bedding. This quilt was an American innovation-the marriage of Old World technique and New World necessity. In frontier Texas that same necessity made the quilt an important part of everyday life.
Hispanic women began quilting in Spanish Texas in the eighteenth century, bringing both quilts and the Spanish tradition of needlecraft with them. They quilted for both practical and artistic reasons on their family's ranches and other abodes along the border of South Texas. They often used brightly colored fabrics to design their quilts. They also made colchas bordadas (embroidered quilts), utilizing yet another tradition inherited from Mexican needlecraft artists. White women brought quilts in their wagons as they traveled from the eastern and southern United States with their families, following the lure of a new life in the West in the early 1800s. Black quilters, who entered the state in the 1800s as slaves, had inherited the tradition of needlecraft from their African ancestors. Each of these groups made quilts, and frequently the materials they used-flour and chicken-feed sacks, for instance, or Bull Durham tobacco sacks-reflected their economic and cultural circumstances
Early Black quilters produced quilts for plantations and for their own families. While they conformed to White society's designs for their plantation quilts, they incorporated their African heritage and American experience in quilts for their own use. Some of these were known as "shirttail," "dresstail," "necktie," and "britches," the latter of which became the most common quilt for daily use. They also made baby quilts from the tops of worn-out socks. Their "string" quilts, whose roots have been traced to West African woven textiles, were probably their most culturally significant ones. In addition to their household use, Black women's quilts were a bartering tool for midwives, who were often paid for their services with a quilt.
After Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836, hundreds of European families, representing many nationalities, immigrated to the new republic. The new immigrants were quick to adopt the use of quilts, and quilts became common in virtually all Texas households, regardless of ethnic or economic differences. In addition to providing warmth for pioneer families, the quilt also had an important social function. By the time Texas was annexed as the twenty-eighth state in 1845, the quilting bee was one of the chief means of drawing women together in sparsely settled areas, giving them a sense of community. Far-flung neighbors would meet at the home of one who had quilt tops ready to be sandwiched together with a batt and lining and "quilted out." Women spent the whole day quilting, while their children played.
The community spirit nurtured by the quilting bee in turn bolstered the art of quilting. As more settlers continued to move to Texas after the Civil War, new counties were formed, and the growing population established more towns. While the frontier disappeared, social institutions became commonplace. In the latter quarter of the nineteenth century, two such institutions, churches and fairs, added a dimension to quilting that had been missing-an audience. Whereas quilts had formerly been made for family use only, they began to be made with a public in mind. Church quilting groups often made quilts to raise funds for church activities. Fairs sponsored quilt contests and awarded prizes for the best entries. In both cases, the quilts produced were made with the best available materials and with particular attention to craft. Quilt patterns, designs, and colors received broader exposure, thus improving the quality of quilts in general.
During the first three decades of the twentieth century, a major revival of interest in quilting occurred throughout North America. World War I, when quilters were urged to "Make Quilts, Save the Blankets for our Boys over There," and the Great Depression were major contributors to this widespread interest. Quilting was promoted in magazines, newspapers, and farm journals, and several books about quilts were written during this time. In Texas, where quilting had never gone out of style as it had in some parts of the country, the national interest simply encouraged a familiar activity. The depression years were perhaps the most prolific period of quilting in Texas to date. The dire economic situation of the time prompted quilting for practical reasons, while the Texas Centennial (1936) inspired the making of special quilts. County agents actively organized Home Demonstration clubs in the 1930s, many of which developed into community quilting clubs that are still in existence today.
Between World War II and the 1970s quilting fell off. The traditional mother-daughter method of teaching quilting began to break down as social and economic conditions changed. The war brought more women into the work force and introduced a new mobility into their lives, thus altering the home and community structure that traditionally had nurtured the making of quilts. In addition, many women associated quilts with the hard times of the depression and chose either to stop quilting or not to learn how. Although quilting was still a common activity in Texas during these decades, it was neither as pervasive nor as popular as it had been. The lull ended in the early 1970s in response to a variety of changing attitudes. All across North America, quilts began to be viewed from new perspectives, as the feminist movement focused on women's art and art critics examined the quilt's similarities to contemporary painting. The back-to-the-land trend, coupled with the national Bicentennial, brought about renewed interest in traditional handicrafts. New publications dedicated to quilting found a large audience. Prior to this time quilting was generally considered to be a rural activity. The 1970s revival of interest in the art was decidedly urban, however, and a new organization among quilters-the quilt guild-reflected this shift. In cities throughout the country, quilt guilds were established. The first Texas guild was founded in Houston in 1976, and by 1985 there were over twenty quilt guilds in the state. Quilt guilds emphasized the study of all aspects of quilts and quilting by sponsoring exhibits, classes, demonstrations, and lectures. By organizing what has traditionally been a relatively unstructured activity, the quilt guild has made quilting a more self-conscious pursuit in Texas. Quilting was once perceived as a quaint and homely art, but the quilt guild has changed that perception. In addition, several touring exhibitions and major books have brought important attention to the art of quilting.
The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.