Friday, April 15, 2016

Quilts in Iowa

The state of Iowa emerged with statehood on December 28, 1846.  However settlers had begun to arrive in Iowa territory prior to that -- the period of time when the area was part of the Northwest territory.  President James K. Polk signed the law admitting Iowa as the 29th state of the Union.  There was a rich history of the plains as many Siouan speaking tribes of Native Americans, along with Caddoan speaking tribes had inhabited the area since prehistoric times.  By the time white settlers began to move into the area the Meskwaki had claimed land in Iowa.  As pioneers began to settle in the mid-1800s, families settled onto the prairie, cleared the land, and began to cultivate the land.  The men and older children worked the fields and tended the animals, the women and younger children tended the home, the garden, and the fires to keep the homestead warm and as comfortable as possible.

One of the activities that occupied the pioneers/settlers, during the winter was making quilts.  Scraps of material were cut into shapes and pieced together to make colorful patterns.  Quilting bees (where a group of quilters would sit around a quilting rack and hand quilt the pieced quilt top to batting and the bottom layer) were held in churches, a neighbor's home, and so forth.Over time many quilts were made and shared.
The picture on the left was taken at the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum in Burr Oak, Iowa.  Laura and her parental family lived there (1876–1877) for a time and operated the town saloon which also took in overnight travelers. These quilts are period pieces that represent the type of quilt that might have been used in the 1870s.  (Read more about Wilder's days in Iowa here

Sometime in the mid-1900s the State Historical Society of Iowa joined a larger project to document the evolution of quilt making in the early days of the state ... and up through 1925.  Documentation for some of these quilts can be located at

Check out the early quilts digitalized on the Quilt index website.  But even though the history here has a cut-off date of 1925 - that doesn't mean that quilting in Iowa is no longer active.  While there are many quilt collections included in this project ( those that are associated directly with Iowa can be found at the State Historical Society of Iowa (
Among some of my favorites are these patterns:

Each of these quilts and others are shown - and details regarding year, quilter, and so forth are included on the Quilt Index website.

Today quilting bees sometimes do take place - often in rural churches, the church ladies hand quilt quilt tops which are brought to them.  The quilts they hand quilt bring in needed funds to their small community.  But these days, many quilts are quilted by machine on contract by quilters who have a long-armed quilting machine in their home or small business location.  On April 15, 2016 a member of the East Iowa Heirloom Quilters, Jennifer McRae, showcased many of her quilts.  The showcase took place at the Hiawatha (Iowa) public library.  The quilts showcased were those that that McRae, her mother, or her daughter had pieced together -- and which McRae or her daughter had machine quilted.

These pictures are from the quilt showcase:

Thank you Jennifer McRae for sharing.  Many more examples of her quilting are showcased on My Dancing Needle webpage at

Those in the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City area may also be interested in investigating the East Iowa Heirloom Quilters group


  • Blaski, Steven. "Quilts Reveal Lives of Early Iowans," The Palimpsest: Iowa's Popular History Magazine. 1990 Spring 71(1); p 33.
  • East Iowa Heirloom Quilters
  • Flanscha, Karan. "Heritage Quilts From America's Heartland: The Iowa Quilt Research Project," Lady's Circle Patchwork Quilts. April/May 1996; pgx. 5-12. 
  • Iowa History: Bits and Pieces: Laura Ingalls WIlder - at home in Iowa. (2013 Sep 15).  Retrieved
  • My Dancing Needle.  (2016) 
  • Schmeal, Jacqueline Andre. Patchwork: Iowa Quilts and Quilters. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2003. 158 p. 0877458650
  • The Quilt Index - Collection: State Historical Society of Iowa.  Retrieved from 
  • The Quilt Research Project. Retrieved from
  • The Thread That Remains, Patterns From Iowa’s Past. Des Moines: Iowa Quilts Research Project, 1990. Small exhibit catalog.