Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

May 23, 2013
Stories of the past sewn into pioneer quilts

Come take a walk with me back in time along a trail less traveled.

In pioneer days, much of the burden fell upon women in the companies. Much preparation was needed before leaving for the new frontier. Among these tasks was providing enough bedding to last for several years after arrival in the West. Quilts made and taken on the journey were worn out after years of use. However, some quilts did survive the trip and those tell a story. Some were friendship quilts, helping to ease separation from loved ones and serving as a remembrance of dear ones left behind.

Sewing and quilting was high on the list of things to do before leaving on the journey. Packing sewing and quilting supplies and as much extra material as possible was important. Very special quilts were packed with china or in a trunk while everyday quilts were left out for bedding. Other uses were padding on a seat on the wagon. When dust storms blew across the plains, quilts were used to cover any openings in the wagon covers. In some cases, during Indian attacks, quilts were hung on the outside wagon covers for protection. New babies were wrapped in quilts and during rain storms quilts were used to stem the flow of water running through the wagon covers. After death, the body was wrapped in a quilt and buried, giving a grieving family comfort that their loved one was enfolded in a lovingly handmade quilt from home.

Upon arrival at their destination, quilts were again found useful. They were used for covering up windows cut into cabins where there was no glass and doorways of cabins or dugouts.

Placing a favorite quilt from home on the bed in a rough-hewn cabin gave a bit of beauty and a connection of her former life to a pioneer woman. Chores were many and pioneer women didn’t have free time. Instead, included in their daily and evening activities, was piecing or sewing a quilt. Often it took months before its completion, but knowing it would eventually be finished helped. One lady wrote in her journal that while she and her husband lived in a dugout there was a terrible storm that raged for days, and if it hadn’t been for her quilt pieces she had to work on, she felt she would have lost her mind.

Scraps of clothing were carefully saved and later put into quilts. A pioneer journal records that a woman had a quilt of rags she had kept from worn out clothing that belonged to her and her family. Each rag told a story of dates and places the family had been, and she began putting them into a quilt. As she pieced the quilt together through the years, her quilt became a tribute to her family and was considered an heirloom long after her death.

Another lady made an album quilt, sewing names of her children and grandchildren with their birth dates and wedding dates on it. Symbols that had sentimental value to the maker were many, such as a pine tree representing fidelity and boldness, everlasting life and stability. A pineapple meant hospitality. A rose represented love.

During the Civil War era, women made quilts for the purpose to signal escaping slaves. The Civil War era included the American Abolition Movement from 1830 through 1880.

During events before the war, there are intriguing stories of how quilting was used to help slaves escape through the Underground Railroad. A log cabin quilt hung in the window with a black center for the chimney was said to indicate a safe house or how to get to safety in a new land. A variation of Jacob’s Ladder gave clues on how to get to that new land during their flight to freedom.

When war broke out, women rallied to help make money for the cause. Women of the South held fairs and bazaars where they sold quilts and other sewn items. Raising money to help buy supplies for the Union, it was later decided to buy medical supplies for the soldiers.

As the Civil War lasted more than four years, the soldiers were becoming increasingly desperate for clothing and blankets. Family quilts were donated at first, and then the military requested quilts be made. Many quilts were cut up and sewn into cot quilts. Money had to be raised to furnish fabric to make the soldiers’ bedding as existing material was used up. It was estimated that more than 250,000 quilts and comforters had been made for the Union soldiers.

Southern women were hindered in producing bedding for their soldiers because they had no tradition of sewing for causes and the wealthier women had slaves do the everyday sewing. Nevertheless, these ladies learned to sew and pitched in to help their soldiers. Calico was said to cost as much as $25 a yard at the end of the war. Old mattresses were torn apart for fiber to spin. Carpets were cut up and made into blankets for the soldiers.

Very few of the quilts made for the soldiers have survived. Most were worn out and many soldiers were buried in their quilts. However, the Tooele County Daughters of Utah Pioneers Museum, 55 E. Vine St. in Tooele, houses several pioneer quilts dating from the early years of Tooele Valley settlement.


Patricia Holden is the publicist for the Tooele County Company of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers. She is also a member of the DUP SheepRock Camp. She can be reached at

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