The Quilt Scout

by Mary Fons

Scrap Quilts for the 21st Century

Column #7

There was plenty of fabric in 1912; this person was just being ornery and “creative.” Cigarette silk quilt, USA, c. 1912. Los Angeles County MusThere are many misunderstandings about quilts in this country (e.g., they are made with yarn). But one I am on a crusade to correct is the notion that early American scrap quilts were made by women patching together little scraps from anything they could, scrimping and saving every fiber that was leftover after making Timmy’s britches. Not true.


In fact, scrap quilts cannot be made unless there is a lot of fabric available, not a little. Think about it. If you’ve got a quilt with 40 different fabrics in it, you had 40 different fabrics in your scrap bag. That’s not scarcity: that’s abundance.


When the colonists came over from England, they had scratchy linsey-woolsey and hardly any of it. This nightmare lasted for some time, until the Industrial Revolution came along and covered the country in cheap, printed cloth.


Fabric went from five dollars a yard around the turn of the 19th century to something around five cents a yard by the mid-1800s. Printed cloth was made in the backyard, and everyone could afford it. A lot of it. In Lowell, Massachusetts, millions of yards of fabric were produced in a single year. The scrap bag was born.


So it was because of abundance—not scarcity—that the American scrap quilt exists. Now you can correct your friends when they get this wrong. They’ll love that.


But then, before the Great Quilt Revival in the late 1970s, we had scarcity again. The Springs, the Modas, the Robert Kaufmans of the industry were years from producing all the fabulous quilter’s cotton we love.


 One of my many scrap bags; this one I got at Neiman Marcus. Just kidding.I remember well going with my mother to the Ben Franklin store to buy fabric for a quilt. There were maybe 10 bolts to choose from, including a dark blue, a light blue, a yellow calico, a brown calico (gross), etc. Once again, scrap quilts were pretty much off the table.


Then the fabric companies rushed in, beginning, more or less, in the 1980s. The industry was growing by orders of magnitude, and there was a huge market for more and more fabric for the insatiable quilter. First, quilters benefitted from the Industrial Revolution; the second boom you might call the “Industry” Revolution.


We should use all of this fabric. We must get started using this endless stream of fabric as soon as possible or we’ll never get through it all. This belief forms the basis of my theory on “The 21st Century Scrap Quilt.”


The "spinning jenny," the first real-life weaving machine, creating job security for colonial reenactment actors for all the years to come.Scrap quilts today can include dozens upon dozens of fabrics, and, well, they should. If you need a medium-value green, why not use twenty different medium-value greens? If you want a purple and pink quilt for your daughter, collect every pink and purple scrap and make room for them all.


The movement and interest of your quilt will double (at least) and you can move through all that fabric and justify buying more.


We have abundance today. Be grateful, and reach for your credit card.