In the 16th century and 17th century, with the colonisation of the New World by Europeans, quilting skills were transferred to America and became an important part of the myth of indomitable pioneer spirit .
In the mid 18th century prison reformers such as Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker had set up committees
“ to improve the female prisoners at Newgate Prison
by teaching them religious principles, habits of order,
sobriety and industry which may render them docile
and peaceable while in prison and respectable when
they leave it”
To this end, prisoners were taught needlework in order that they could be employed and earn money towards their release date. For prisoners being transported to Botany Bay, provisions were made for convicts to make a quilt in groups, while on board ship to sell upon their arrival.
These reformist principles were also used to provide work for women in impoverished areas such as Wales and Durham, with the finished work being sold to the wealthy in London.
The system whereby wealthy women commissioned work and the poor using the skills to make quilts for their families use from scraps and worn clothing continued until the end of the 19th century, although as a pastime for middle class women, for their own use, quilting remained popular until the beginning of the 20th century, peaked again during the Great Depression in 1920s and 1930s America and then declined due in part to the availability of cheap ready made goods, central heating, a perception that man made fibres were superior and a belief that modernity was associated with upward social mobility
In the 1970s quilting enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, some of the reasons posited to account for this were the Bicentennial celebrations in the USA, there was also another economic downturn and uncertainty about the future, people became nostalgic for an idealised past (shown in fashion from the period) At the same time more women were working and earning allowing financial independence, and cotton fabric, which the few quilt books available from public libraries, insisted on, were available cheaply as Laura Ashley (a quilt enthusiast) began selling bags of cotton squares in her shops.
Quilts have been shown in Art Museums, in 1971 the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York, showed quilts for the first time, though the work was acclaimed not the maker.(Pollock 1981) The Quilts of Gees Bend, the work of an isolated community of African American women in rural Alabama, achieved international recognition, partially because they were ‘discovered’ and promoted by William Arnott who had strong links to the fine art establishment.
Perhaps because of their associations with comfort and memory, quilts have become tools for raising public awareness and protest, for example the “Names” quilt and the 9/11 quilts to commemorate the dead.