THE PATCHWORK QUILT is the quintessential American needle art, linked in mythology to the pioneer women who saved every shred of fabric so that they could stitch together bedcovers of surpassing beauty and practicality.
Well, almost. The truly desperate slapped anything together to keep warm, but these quilts were rarely beautiful. The works of art that endure in museums and treasured family collections usually were made by middle-class women who had the money to work out a color scheme without using scraps and the time to do all the intricate stitching. Nineteenth-Century Baltimore Brides' quilts, for instance, covered with appliqued folk-art figures, were not made by any pioneer shivering in a mud hut.
Most of the patterns we now think of as traditional were designed in the 19th Century. But many others, including the double wedding ring, came along in the 1920s and '30s. In spite of--or because of--the Great Depression, many women in the '30s spent hours at their quilt frames, enjoying a quilting renaissance with huge regional and countrywide contests.
Compared to nowadays, that was nothing. For the past 15 years, quilting as a pastime and as a profession has grown enormously. There are national seminars and contests, regional shows, traveling museum shows, TV instruction and videos and hundreds of quilting guilds--45 in Southern California alone--not including the stores and companies that sell patterns, fabrics and accessories.