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Quilting History: A Look Back at Beautiful 1930s Quilts

Quilts from the 1930s are some of the most sought after by quilt collectors. The beautiful quilts from that era have certain trademark characteristics quilters still use when quilting today.

Read on to find out more about these amazing quilts from an era gone by that have wide appeal to quilters today.

1930s reproduction quilt kit

Marcus Fabrics Gracie’s Schoolhouse Classics Quilt Kit

Characteristics of 1930s quilts

1930s quilts often have solid-colored backgrounds — many backgrounds are simple solid muslin, but bright pinks, blues, yellows and reds were also common background colors. The prints used in the quilts of the 1930s were an eclectic array of small and large florals and geometrics, polka dots in all sizes, plaids, stripes and novelty prints with animals and children’s motifs. With all of the sweet simplicity and charm of these quilts from the past, it’s no wonder that contemporary quilters often make this same style of quilts today.

1930s inspired quilting fabric

Pretty Posies 1930s reproduction fabrics from Robert Kaufman

A common motto in the 1930s was: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”

Because of this, and because times were hard for many American women during the late 1920s and 1930s, quilters often pieced their quilts with leftovers from “necessary” sewing projects: men’s shirts and trousers, women’s aprons and dresses, children’s clothing, and even cotton feedsacks that household staples like flour and sugar were packaged in.

1930's Era Dresden Plate Quilt

Photo via A Quilting Life

Two of my great-great grandmothers were quilting during this era. One of them used her money from selling eggs to purchase fabric. When purchasing fabric for the family clothing needs, she often added an extra quarter yard so that she could add that fabric to her quilting fabric stash. My grandmother used to tell me that when looking at the quilts her grandmother had pieced, she could always pick out fabrics in the quilts that were from dresses and aprons her grandmother frequently wore.

1930's Era Grandmother's Flower Garden

1930s quilt patterns

While some quilt designs are usually associated with this era of quilting such as the Grandmother’s Flower Garden quilts, Dresden Plate quilts, and quilts ranging from those pieced with simple patchwork squares to ones made utilizing intricate appliqué, quilters from this era actually had a wide variety of patterns available to choose from. Women often traded patterns in their sewing groups, and they also ordered patterns through the mail and found them in newspapers. Many of the quilts from this era were hand-pieced from small scraps; however, sewing machines were also widely used for piecing quilts during this era.

Reproduction 1930's Churn Dash Quilt

When a woman finished piecing a quilt top, it was a common practice to get together with a group of friends for the actual quilting of the quilt.

Nearly all quilts from this era were hand quilted. My grandmother remembers sitting on a small stool underneath her grandmother’s quilts, listening to her grandmother’s friends visit and talk while they quilted. They often quilted through the morning, ate a potluck lunch, and then quilted in the afternoon until it was time for the women to return home to their families. Some women hired out the quilting of their quilts, just as women do today. The price for hand quilting was usually based on the number of spools of thread that it took for the quilting rather than the number of hours the quilting actually took.

While original quilts from the 1930s are a true treasure today, there are also many modern-day quilts pieced with reproduction 1930s fabrics.

Nearly every fabric manufacturer currently produces or has produced these beautiful reproduction fabrics. It is easy to sew using these fabrics since they coordinate well, and many companies also produce and sell reproduction solid fabrics in the colors of this era.

Want to sew your own 1930s-style quilts?

1930s reproduction quilt fabric

Find beautiful reproduction 1930s fabric and quilt kits, perfect for creating your own modern-day heirloom, right here on Craftsy.Shop fabric now »

20 Comments

lynda

When I was just a few weeks old, our house in London was destroyed by a german bomb and my parents were left with nothing. We were housed temporarily (which turned out to be five years) while the house was rebuilt and we were provided with the basics from kind donations, some of which had come from the USA. Best of all were the patchwork quilts on our beds. Colourful cotton tops with wincyette pyjama backs.
I loved those quilts and they inspired me to become a quilter.

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Barbara Daniels

I am a past President of West Australian Quilters Association. I thought Lynda would like to know that we have a quilt in our historical quilt collection that was made by the Canadian Red Cross and sent to families like hers during the war. This particular quilt has had a very interesting history and eventually travelled to W.A, with a pioneering family. It is a beautiful quilt made of heavy furnishing fabric. I guess they used whatever was to hand.There is a group in England tracing as many of these quilts as possible. I can give you details if you are interested. Best wishes Barbara

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Charlotte Wells

lynda,, your use of the word wincyette made me curious so I looked it up. I came from east Tennessee, a major quilting place, by the way. We always called it outing flannel for some reason. Wincyette must originally been a brand name, don’t you think? All the ladies in my neighborhood used to get together and quilt and there was a widow who did it for money. I don’t know how she set prices. Lovely story, thank you.

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Marianne

What a great story! Thanks for sharing it.

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Bette

Lynda, thank you for sharing your story! I often wonder about quilts that we make to donate to worthy causes. Every one of those quilts goes to someone who, after the disaster or emergency they encountered, will have a lifelong memory of that life-changing event and, one hopes, the generosity of others. I’ll keep your story in mind as I work on my next charity quilt.

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Rose

Just the other day as I was driving near home I came upon an accident scene with many emergency vehicles. I saw a woman clutching her baby, who was wrapped in a quilt, and a small child at her feet was also cuddled in one. Local guilds provide quilts for just such situations. It didn’t occur to me until then that quilts provide even more than comfort because when a person is in shock, body temperature can fall.

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Diana Lee Taber

The best book I have ever read about these quilts is A People and Their Quilts by John Rice Irwin. My heart breaks everytime I look at the picture of Martha McMahan whose only income was the quilts she made and sold. She never had a quilt frame, so she worked 16 hour days bending over a bed to do her quilting. Tears come to my eyes as I see the pictures of Jesus who was her strength. I have had this book since 1986 so I am sure she is long gone. I hope she was wrapped in one of her quilts for eternity.

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Eepsers

Lynda, how touching that someone’s kindness and generosity inspired not only you, but anyone who hears your story. I would be humbled if some of my quilting provided such comfort to someone.

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Eepsers

PS Diana, my aunt quilted on a homemade frame made of tobacco sticks–cheap pieces of wood used to hang bundles of tobacco in a barn for drying. I am sure they were cast-off sticks from someone’s farm. She was a master of making do.

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Elaine

I found the above comments very interesting, I too have made quilts or often helped in a group project to be given to someone in need or to children who need a little something that is theirs such as a quilt.

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MelanieV

I have had the good fortune to come across 2 1930’s quilts in a resale shop. The colors are still so vivid and beautiful. They are in pretty bad shape, the centers are gone, worn out from use. One is actually 2 tops, one over the other, and inside…get ready for it…newsprint. This quilt was paper pieced, so even though I can’t identify the quilter, I know where and when it was made. What a treasure I have found.

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Joanne

If only the centers are gone, or only one of the fabrics is worn more than the others, it may be because of the dyes used. In those days heavy metals were used for many colors, and they ate through the fabric! Environmental regulations which although sadly made some vivid reds very difficult, and made many colors less stable will help the fabrics themselves last longer!

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Shirley Peters

I love the idea of make do and mend, something my parents and grandparents got used to during the war. I recently bought (for the tiny cost of £5) a very large grandmothers flower garden quilt top with the papers still in, that someone had donated to a charity shop. I plan to finish it then donate it for someone in need.

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Nell Gutierrez

Can I purchase a pattern for “Gracie’s School House Classic Quilt”?

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Anita Lancaster

When one granddaughter had an emergency appendectomy at a very young age, her nurse brought in a large, hand made quilt donated for young patients. I felt compelled, as a quilter, to replace it. The nurse said they could use more masculine as they never have enough for male patients, and bigger then infant size. So within a week, I took back a twin size flannel bright red/blue/yellow block quilt to replace the pink floral one our granddaughter came home with.

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Annie

I volunteer in the ‘Treasure Shop’ of our local senior center, a thrift shop to which donations of all sorts are made for resale at very reasonable prices, and from time to time a very old quilt will come in which we will not put out for sale but donate to one or another of the historic homes in our area or to the local quilt museum. Generally the quilts are in rough shape and some may even go further back than the 30’s. These obviously come from the homes of seniors who have died and their homes are being cleared out. What treasures these are and each time one comes in I wonder how a family member can want to rid themselves of such simple beauty. It always breaks my heart to think the work and love gone into each of these pieces are not appreciated by family members. The motto about using it up or doing without is one I was raised with growing up in rather poor circumstances in New York, and now, living in New England, I have come to realize this is a mantra repeated throughout these six states … it goes back further than the 30’s I would think and makes as good sense today as it did long ago.

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Mars2122

Thanks for the History touch up, I enjoyed it greatly. And you had a few things I didn’t know. Now here is one for you. During this period Grey was as popular as it is today. Except no Reproductions are really designed with greys. So if you want to find an original 1930s quilt look for the grey.

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Jeanne

I am so glad I had an opportunity to join this blog. I have always loved the look of quilts. My mother made them and I have some of the tops that she never finished from, my guess the thirties and forties. I treasure them. I tend to buy traditional fabric and always end up making the old patterns such as Grandmother’s Flower Garden, Dresden Plate and Grandmother’s Fan to name a few of my favorites. I too grew up having to make do, not throw anything away that can be used somehow some way again and now that I am in my seventies I appreciate that I did grow up that way.

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Dave Nelson

Thanks for the information in the article. My cousin gave me a 1930’s era quilt top, small Dresden design, that was my great grandmothers and in the process of completing the top.

Dave

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