Suzy Quilts Book Club: Fabric of a Nation Discussion Part I

Join us for Part One of our Suzy Quilts Book Club discussion for the book Fabric of a Nation! #quilting #quilthistory

Hi, book worms! Are you ready for our first-ever Suzy Quilts book club discussion? As we announced last month, our first book club selection is Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories, a visually stunning catalog that accompanies the exhibit of the same at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

In these three chapters, we learned about quilts and related bedcoverings from the Colonial Era through the Civil War by examining 26 textiles. Themes included trade, labor, immigration, industrialization, westward expansion, and more. There's a lot of history packed into these quilts!

Keep reading to find out how to participate, read our discussion questions, and bust some big quilt history myths. And keep the conversation about Fabric of a Nation going by responding to our discussion questions in the blog comments!

Join us for Part One of our Suzy Quilts Book Club discussion for the book Fabric of a Nation! #quilting #quilthistory

Suzy Quilts Book Club Schedule

  • Introduction, October 8: Order Fabric of a Nation
  • Discussion Part 1, November 18: We will discuss Chapters 1-3 in a new blog post, and Laura will host an Instagram LIVE at 7:30pm Central
  • Discussion Part 2, December 13: We will discuss Chapters 4-6 in a new blog post.
  • Live Book Club Interview, December 16: Laura will interview Jennifer Swope, Associate Curator of Textile and Fashion Arts for the MFA, Boston, and moderate a discussion about both the book and the exhibit. Don't miss this behind-the-scenes look at a landmark exhibit! This IG LIVE event will happen on the Suzy Quilts Instagram at 11:30 am Central.

Here's how you can get involved with the book discussion.

  • Comment on the blog: Answer one of the discussion questions below, ask your own question, or write your observations from the book in the blog comments, which I'll read and reply to.
  • Watch the Instagram LIVE: Comment during an IG LIVE on the Suzy Quilts Instagram. If you can't watch LIVE, the video will be reposted here and saved on Suzy's grid, so you can still comment. I'll also share some of my favorite books from my personal quilt history library for readers who want to dive even deeper!
  • Join the Suzy Quilts Facebook Group: We'll keep the conversation going after the IG LIVE in the Facebook Group as well! I'll post a link to this blog post and readers can also comment there.

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Join us for Part One of our Suzy Quilts Book Club discussion for the book Fabric of a Nation! #quilting #quilthistory

Paul family quilt, unidentified artist, late 1830s
, South Solon, Maine, United States
. Wool plain weave, pieced, quilted, and embroidered with wool and cotton. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Big Three Questions

In both of our book club discussions, I'm going to ask the same three questions to kick things off. Investigating quilt history is a thrilling endeavor that can help us appreciate our craft 

  • What was your favorite quilt, or the quilt that sparked your interest the most? 
  • What was the most surprising new fact about quilts that you learned? 
  • Has this book broadened or changed your understanding of quilt history? In what ways? 

For this discussion of Fabric of a Nation, I'm also interested in what you look forward to learning about in the rest of the book. What quilt history topics are you most excited to read about? 

Join us for Part One of our Suzy Quilts Book Club discussion for the book Fabric of a Nation! #quilting #quilthistory

Album quilt, unidentified artist, about 1850
, Baltimore, Maryland, United States. 
Cotton plain weave, pieced, appliquéd, quilted, and embroidered, ink. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Mythbusting: Quilt History Edition

Throughout the pages of Fabric of a Nation, we read familiar stories about quilts. But we also learned that some commonly believed quilt stories aren't rooted in historic facts. Here are just some of the quilt history myths that were busted in this book. 

Myth #1: There were an abundance of Colonial quilts.

Many of the early quilts we learned about were imported from Britain or India, not made by quilters living in the colonies. Weaving, embroidery, and other textile techniques were more common ways to make a bedcovering. 

Join us for Part One of our Suzy Quilts Book Club discussion for the book Fabric of a Nation! #quilting #quilthistory

Myth #2: Early quilting was a way to pinch pennies and use what little scraps of fabric were available.

Lavish. Wealthy. Status Symbol. These are just some of the words used to describe the earliest examples of quilts and bedcoverings in this book. While it's true that there are historic quilts made with scraps of fabric, feed sack material, and clothing, that comes later in quilt history after the mechanization of fabric production made it easier for more households to acquire fabric. These early examples were very costly and found in the wealthiest homes. 

The whole cloth quilt on pp. 40-41 is an excellent example. 

Myth #3: All early quilts and bedcoverings were made by women sitting around a quilting frame.

While there are some examples of communal textile making, particularly the very cute story about the embroidered child's blanket by Mary Fifield Adams on pp. 34-35, or the labor-intensive corded bedcover and matching textiles by Eunice Dennie Burr on pp. 36-39, we see at least an equal number of quilts and coverlets that would have been purchased. 

The dazzling coverlet by Harry Tyler on pp. 64-67 is a beautiful example with an interesting story about American individualism, immigration, and booming industrialization. 

Join us for Part One of our Suzy Quilts Book Club discussion for the book Fabric of a Nation! #quilting #quilthistory

Myth #4: Only the Southern economy relied on cotton produced by the labor of enslaved people.

As we saw in several quilts, Northern states increasingly relied on cotton as textile mills and industrialization changed the way fabric was manufactured. Because cotton was not grown in the north, it was imported from Southern states. The Henry Clay Feathered Star quilt on pp. 72-75 is an example. 

The John Bull figure in the Civil War Zouave quilt on pp. 84-87 is an example of British reliance on cotton picked by enslaved people. 

Join us for Part One of our Suzy Quilts Book Club discussion for the book Fabric of a Nation! #quilting #quilthistory

Civil War Zouave quilt, probably mid- to late 1860s, unidentified artist. Wool plain weave and twill, cotton plain weave and other structures, leather; pieced, appliquéd, and embroidered with wool. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Myth #5: Quilts were instrumental in the Underground Railroad.

This myth is the biggie. I'm sure every person reading this blog post has heard this story before, and that people reading the book may have gotten to chapter 3, focused on the Civil War and westward expansion, and wondered why there was no mention of the Underground Railroad.

The absence of quilts used as a code in the Underground Railroad is likely because this part of quilt history is considered a myth or folklore by many, if not most, quilt historians. For those of you who are particularly interested, check out this half hour lecture by quilt historian and folklorist Laurel Horton that explains how the story started, why it became so popular, and why it doesn't exactly stand up to historic research and inquiry.

As quilt historian Barbara Brackman wrote in her book Facts & Fabrications: Unraveling the History of Quilts & Slavery, "We have no historical evidence of quilts being used as signals, codes, or maps. The tale of quilts and the Underground Railroad makes a good story, but not good history."

In episode 9 of the quilt documentary series Why Quilts Matter, which focuses on quilt scholarship, quilt historian and curator Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi also talks about quit codes. As she wrote in her landmark quilt book And Still We Rise: Race, Culture, and Visual Conversations, the issue remains "hotly debated," with some scholars supporting the oral history that originated the story alone, and others noting that many of the blocks from the original quilt code oral history did not appear in quilts until after the Civil War, meaning they could not have been used as codes. 

The exciting thing about history is that our knowledge of it grows as more and more research is done into a topic, and quilt scholars continue to research the Underground Railroad code to seek confirmation of a pattern and more evidence. 

Join us for Part One of our Suzy Quilts Book Club discussion for the book Fabric of a Nation! #quilting #quilthistory

Amish Floating Bars quilt, about 1940, unidentified artist, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, United States. Pieced wool plain weave top, wool plain weave back and binding; quilted. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Dive Deeper with More Discussion!

If you want to dive even deeper into the themes of Fabric of a Nation's first three chapters, here are even more discussion questions to consider!

  • Many of the earliest quilts in this book have a strong provenance (which is a museum word for an object's history from the maker through today). The Bowdoin Coverlet (pp. 20-23) is a great example. Do you have any family quilts with great documentation? 
  • The Hannah (Leathers) Wilson counterpane (pp. 62-63) is an incredible example of the historic research that goes into finding the makers of unsigned textiles. Do you label your quilts? Have you ever done historic or genealogical research into a quilt? 
  • The introduction to chapter 3 seems to mark a significant turning point in how the book's authors discuss quilts. In this chapter, the quilts take on a more personal and sometimes emotional role in storytelling about American history. Why do you think that is? 
  • There is only one Amish quilt included in the book, the Floating Bars quilt by Menno Peachy (pp. 98-101). While the authors discuss Amish and Mennonite quilting as starting later in history than commonly believed, this quilt made in 1940 is included in the first half of the book. Do you think that placement of a more recently made quilt in a chapter about quilting in the mid-to-late-1800s fits well? 
  • Chapter 3 ends on the cusp of mass industrialization, and we saw examples of previously expensive fabric becoming more broadly accessible. The result is a significant rise in patchwork quilting, which we will see even more of in later chapters. We are currently living through another rise in the number of quilters in the United States, as the pandemic has inspired a new generation of quilters to join our ranks. Do you think pandemic quilting will go down as a similarly important moment in quilt history? 
Join us for Part One of our Suzy Quilts Book Club discussion for the book Fabric of a Nation! #quilting #quilthistory

Keep the Suzy Quilts Book Club Discussion Going!

I want to hear from you! Join me on Instagram LIVE, post your responses to discussion questions or questions of your own in the comments, or get together with some of your best quilting friends and discuss the book in a small group. And start reading chapters 4-6 of Fabric of a Nation for our next Suzy Quilts Book Club discussion! 

12 thoughts on “Suzy Quilts Book Club: Fabric of a Nation Discussion Part I

  1. Martha says:

    Pirates 🏴‍☠️! The fabric of a Nation highlights so much of the history surrounding the materials used to make textiles and dyes but I did not expect to find out that Counterpane(palampore) about 1700, probably Gujarati Page 30 might have been pirate booty.

  2. Susan says:

    I loved the pictorial crazy quilt by Bacheller. The detail is amazing and and while there are characteristics of a more traditional crazy quilt, it tells so many stories. (My brother has the crazy quilt that came from my Mom’s side of the family.) The top left block shows picking water lilies along a lake which I have done countless times as a child in Northern WI.

    • Laura Hopper says:

      That was a very interesting one! So often we see crazy quilts that are just random shapes instead of pictorial designs. I saw a pictorial crazy quilt in an exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago that was a portrait of a wrestler and fell very deeply in love with that quilt! I love that this quilt connected with you on a personal level.

  3. Briana says:

    I’m with Susan…the Celestine Bacheller crazy quilt is my favorite and totally blew my mind! I’ve not ever seen such a beautiful pictorial crazy quilt. Her depictions of her old house and personal historical scenes from her memory are almost heartbreaking in their beauty and recall of detail. She really knew about composition, and even though there is a lot going on here it’s still quiet in a way… maybe it’s the solid coherence overall with the repetition of each sky, mid line and ground, building, boat, water. When I squint at it and blur my vision … light, medium, and dark stripes appear. And being a data lover, there’s so much to catalogue! 8 scenes have boats, 11 of 12 have water, 11 of 12 have buildings and it’s nearly devoid of people… that’s without being able to take a closer look. It’s inspiring and if you are a thinking person, it makes you consider what your own scenes would include. I’ve made a grid of 12 blocks and have been thinking about what I’d populate each with from my memories…I went through quickly the first time and then went back and reconsidered each, crossing out and adding. It’s an exercise that makes you return to Celestine’s quilt and wonder about her choices, how she made them and how she decided what to include.

    • Laura Hopper says:

      Wow, Briana, I absolutely love the idea of creating your own grid inspired by this quilt and thinking about what memories you’d include! Are you planning to make a quilt inspired by Celestine’s when you’ve finished making your memory grid?

      • Briana says:

        If I wasn’t so busy! But it’s definitely on my mind. Now I’m regretting bringing a bag of ties that my mother-in-law gave to me to our town’s swap shop …tie fabric would be great for some details in a quilt like this. And FYI, this is the best book club ever! Thank you 🙂

  4. Stephanie says:

    Hi, Laura! Love this book club so far. Would you be willing to include in these posts some of the other quilt books you have in your personal library that you showed us in the Instagram Live?

    Also, I wanted to let you know that I followed along with the book selections during the Voyage QA and was so delighted to read them. Most books, I was able to borrow from the local library. There are a few that I intend to purchase as well… Thank you for sharing your expertise with us! You and Suzy make a brilliant team.

    • Laura Hopper says:

      That’s so nice, Stephanie, thank you so much! I can add those books into the blog post soon-I didn’t put them in here because some are out of print, but I think people could find most of them at their libraries. I’m so very glad to hear that you liked the books I shared during the Voyage sew along! How did you like the Ruth Asawa book? It’ll be interesting to look at quilts made around the time she was making her sculptures during this book club!

  5. Stephanie says:

    The Ruth Asawa book was one of my favorites. It’s one of those books when you question the why of what you do, you understand and feel validated. She’s relatable. I love the contrast between her and Jackson Pollock, with him working solitarily and her amongst her children, and society’s view of serious artwork vs. craft art.

    I agree that will be very interesting!

    • Laura Hopper says:

      Yes! Her connection to children-both her own and children in general as an education reformer-is one of the things that draws me to her as an artist. I think that aspect of her work is familiar to a lot of quilters. I’m so glad you enjoyed learning about her!

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