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Quilting in McHenry County

Women brought the quilting tradition to McHenry County when settling here with their families in the 1830s.

The history of quilts and quilting in McHenry County mirrors the social, political, economic and war climate of the nation. The early times in McHenry County began in the 1830s as settlers filtered up from the southern part of the state, moved west through the Great Lakes or from Ohio and Indiana. Families migrating to Northern Illinois brought both customs and quilts.

It is said that location is everything, and this proves to be particularly true in McHenry County. With Chicago’s mercantile and transportation hub and McHenry County’s naturally rich soils, the pioneer period of hardship here was relatively short. McHenry County citizens soon had life a bit easier than their grandparents

Women who brought quilts from home were soon able to obtain local materials to make bedding. While early quilts and tied comforters might have been made from homespun old clothing or old bedding, this soon gave way to manufactured fabrics and supplies, such as quality thread and needles. Production of quilts for families became easier. Even buying on time was available by the 1860s for those who could afford a sewing machine made by National Sewing Machine Co. in nearby Belvidere, Ill.


Quilting Through the Ages

From early times, women gathered together to help complete quilts. It was no different in McHenry County. These gatherings – often called “bees” – allowed for productive hours while socializing.


During the Civil War era, McHenry County diaries indicate women joined the movement begun by the U.S. Sanitary Commission to make quilts for soldiers’ cots and bedrolls. Most were used until threadbare, so few survive. According to the May 2011 issue of Family Tree Magazine, the cost of fabrics, thread, and pins and needles increased tenfold during the Civil War.


After the war, costs dropped so quilting was more affordable. Social trends allowed for the making of quilts at a more leisurely pace. Crazy quilts made in McHenry County using more exotic fabrics followed the national infatuation with all things Japanese due to the opening of international markets. Crazy quilts were made of odd-sized samples of velvets, silks or ribbons joined with a variety of fancy embroidery stitches. The fragility of some fabrics and dye quality caused some silks to shatter, so many have not survived in good shape.


As manufactured blankets became available, a core of women kept the quilting skill alive to be revived when the need arose during World War I and the Depression. Paralleling this was the rise in popularity of women’s magazines. Quilting advice had been published since the 1850s, but now became a rich source of quilt patterns and kits. The Kansas City Star had been printing patterns since the ’30s, the Chicago newspapers carried patterns and tips, and even cotton batting wrappers had patterns printed on them.


McHenry County quilters had access to a major quilt shop just over the state line in Walworth, Wis. Store owner Mary McElwain was one of four judges of the famousSears, Roebuck and Co.quilt contest held at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair: A Century of Progress International Exposition. Again, location allowed for lots of interest and participation. About 25,000 entries poured in from all over the nation vying for the $1,000 grand prize. Many county residents were able to attend the fair and new pattern ideas spread rapidly.


Some experts report a lull in quilting that seems to have occurred during World War II, perhaps because of strenuous focus on wartime efforts from the home front. With conversion to wartime production, even by McHenry County factories, use of cloth from feed sack increased. Many households used this fabric in creative ways – from clothing to curtains. Today, these bags are highly sought after and cost many times over what the original contents of these bags would have brought in.


The 1960s saw several quilt magazines start up with a corresponding increase in the numbers of quilters. Quilting picked up during the country’s bicentennial celebrations of 1976 and spread to more than just the committed. McHenry County still has guilds and informal sewing circles going strong that were founded in the ’70s.

In 2002, McHenry County took part in a quilt registration day, which produced photographs and stories of quilts 50 years or older, either made or owned by county residents. Most entries were added to Illinois Quilt Research Project, which now has documented more than 30,000 quilts throughout the state.


The McHenry County Historical Society also issued its own registry numbers and holds their registration records at their location in Union. They maintain an outstanding quilt collection and variety of quilts that verify the quilting activities of McHenry County women.


Can’t quilt? There are wonderful songs, short stories and novels incorporating quilting to explore dating back to 1844. Dorothy Canfield (Fisher)‘s “The Bedquilt,” published in 1906 in Harper’s Magazine, tells about a quilt at a county fair, much like our county fair’s annual contest.


Quilting Today

Quilting in McHenry County is alive and well. Most large towns in the county have quilters that meet frequently and welcome members, whether experienced or novice. There are guilds, active church quilting groups, shops that offer classes and bees to join. They quilt to meet many goals and sometimes quilt just for fun. Quilting is done in celebrating milestones; for schools and 4-H clubs; to help the needy, ill and disaster victicms, for fundraising, churches, nursing homes, memorials and more.

Heritage Quilters meet 9:30 a.m. to noon Wednesdays throughout the year at the McHenry County Historical Society’s museum (6422 Main Street, Union) to work on a raffle quilt that benefits the not-for-profit Historical Society. Beginners welcome – bring a friend!


There is probably a quilting group within 10 miles of your home. Most any quilter you meet – like their counterparts from 100 years ago – will be glad to mentor, share ideas and patterns, and even swap fabrics. Today’s quilters have an unprecedented freedom to choose from many styles and patterns, piecing or appliqué techniques, a large variety of fabrics, hand finishing or machine quilting. All are acceptable ways of enjoying one of the most American of crafts.


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