The National Quilt Collection

The National Quilt Collection, part of the Division of Home and Community Life's Textile Collection at the National Museum of American History, had its beginnings in the 1890s. Three quilts were included in a larger collection of 18th- and 19th- century household and costume items from one Stonington, Connecticut family. From this early beginning, the Collection has grown to more than 400 quilts and quilt-related items, mainly of American origin. Most of the contributions have come to the Museum as gifts, many from the quilt-makers' families. The quilts are part of a lasting material record of the American experience, and are preserved in perpetuity for all Americans. As few of the quilts are on exhibition at any given time, this film provides an overview, in quilt storage, of the behind-the-scenes activities of the staff and volunteers as they work with this rich and interesting collection.

Quilts were made primarily by women, and have played a large part in revealing evidence of the circumstances of their lives: economic levels, the goods available to them and their increasing consumerism, their thrift and extravagance, the opportunity for self-expression in an acceptable activity, their schooling and family education and instruction, their group activities, personal identity and reward, and skills.

Some of the quilts reflect very personal interests and concerns; others express political and societal concerns such as patriotism, anti-slavery sentiments, war and peace. Many quilts in the collection have inscriptions that leave us a textile record expressing the interests and feelings of the makers. Others provided the makers an opportunity for artistic expression in a practical endeavor. About 100 examples from the collection can be seen on this website.

Altogether, the collection shows the progression and notable phases in American quilt-making; provides a history of materials available to the quilt makers and of the techniques practiced; illustrates many social, cultural, technological, and economic influences affecting quilts made and used in America; and contributes to the illumination of American life, family, community, and country.

The Division of Home and Community Life continues its long term mission to maintain and develop research-based collections that document and preserve American stories through family, community, biographical/individual oral histories and other materials. The quilt collection, for the most part, represents the middle class and affluent of the eastern half of the country, rather than a potpourri of the widely diverse population of the nation. We should like to encourage viewers to come forward with quilts and other needlework, to donate or to be recorded, with histories that contribute to our awareness of the rich diversity of the people who came to live here, the traditions they brought and carry on, and the ways in which they adopted the endeavors already here. Please contact us at bowmand@si.edu.

Videos
This virtual tour was made possible by a grant from Patty Stonesifer and Michael Kinsley through The Seattle Foundation.
The gift was made in honor of Mrs. Frances Quigley.


Quilt Collection Video:
The National Quilt Collection: An Overview


Quilt Collection Video:
Quilt Scene Investigation

In the Textile Analysis Lab, Kathy Dirks demonstrates how technical analyses of quilts with scientific equipment is used for identification and verification

Quilt Collection Video:
Quilt Care

Kathy Dirks shows the quilt storage room, and the cabinets and materials used in housing the collection.

Quilt Collection Video:
Machine Quilting

Barbara Janssen shows the patent model of a Grover & Baker sewing machine and explains how the stitch it produced helped to determine the probable date of a quilt in the collection.

Quilt Collection Video:
Civil War Sunday School Quilt

Virginia Eisemon discusses the history of a quilt made by a Maine Sunday school class for the benefit of hospitalized Union soldiers.

Quilt Collection Video:
Lydia Finnell's Star Quilt

Sheryl DeJong identifies the techniques and stitches in a late 19th-century crazypatch quilt and discusses the availability of materials, patterns, and instructions at the time.

Links
NMAH Collections Site

Quilts, Counterpanes and Throws: A Selection from the National Collection

NMAH quilts in the general Smithsonian Collections