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Quilting has origins in the Middle East and Europe, but settlers that came to America brought this skill with them from their homelands. Sometime in the 19th century, the quilting bee became a popular way to pass the time, especially for settlers of the Great Plains. Not only did these bees provide a chance for women to create a handmade quilt, but they were also an important social event. Sometimes, women and their families came from miles away just to attend a quilting bee.
The modern word “quilt” comes from the French word “cuilte,” which originated from the Latin word for “stuffed sack,” “culcita”. Quilting is believed to have been around since ancient times. In fact, one of the oldest quilted items was found in an ancient Egyptian tomb.
Researchers believe the art of quilting began around the area now known as the Middle East. It is believed that the Crusaders brought this art back to European countries sometime around the 11th century. The American settlers then brought their quilting talents to the New World.
Although most women did make quilts in colonial America, the quilting bee did not become extremely popular until the 19th century. This is especially true for the settlers of the Midwestern region known as the Great Plains. A quilting bee in this area was not only an event to make a quilt, but it was also an opportunity to socialize.
Throughout the long winters, women would often create the quilt squares that would be used to create a quilt. Quilting bees were typically held when the weather got warm in the spring and summer. If a house was too small to hold a quilting frame, the quilting bee would be held outside.
Women would often come from many miles away to gather around a quilting frame. These frames were typically very simply constructed, using wooden boards. The quilt in progress would be stretched between two boards. This would result in a taut, flat surface for the women to sew on.
Sometimes, only a few very talented women would show up at a quilting bee. The quilts created during these bees would often be used to commemorate special events, such as weddings or births. Other times, several women, from novices to experts, would gather around the quilting frame. Large quilting bees may have had dozens of women gathered around several quilting frames. These types of quilting bees were usually more for socialization.
While the women sewed, they also socialized and traded gossip. This also gave their husbands a chance to socialize and their children to play together. As dinnertime approached on the day of the quilting bee, the women would also busy themselves with cooking a large meal for themselves and their family. Some quilting bees also ended with music and dancing.
Quilting bees were also popular in the Southeast. In fact, it's something of an art form. The ladies of Gee's Bend, Alabama had some of their quilts, and their ancestor's quilts in an art show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City!
Quilting bees were also a way of helping each other with tedious tasks. Having 10 or 12 ladies working on a quilt completed it very quickly -- much quicker than a solo quilter could do it. They quilted at each other's homes.
A quilting frame is more than two boards. They are simple, but they are also well constructed. They are two square frames with mitered corners, which lie on top of each other, with the
quilt sandwiched between them, and usually held together with a vise or clamp of some kind. My great-aunt's quilting frame had four stands made out of rebar to hold up the frame as she and her sisters worked on their quilts.
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