Hand-sewing an entire quilt is no small task, as the women of 19th Century America knew all too well.
These women began the quilting bee tradition to come together and work more efficiently as a team.
Here’s Why It is Called a Quilting Bee:
A quilting bee is a name given to a social gathering devoted to quilting. A “bee” is used to describe a social activity around a specific task. You might have heard of sewing bees or spelling bees outside of quilting bees.
When Did Quilting Bees Begin?
Quilting bees became popular in the 19th Century. At the time, quilts were essential to keeping the family warm and surviving long, cold winters.
However, completing a whole quilt was a large job for a woman already busy with other household duties. To get the job done quickly, women decided to come together and assist each other with their quilting projects.
These sewing sessions became known as quilting bees and quickly caught on throughout the United States.
Their popularity, however, wasn’t all about the productivity they inspired. This was a time when women were more restricted to domestic life at home. Meaningful chances to get out of the house were hard for many women.
The quilting bee provided a chance to meet with other women in the community. These meetings became the perfect combination of both work and social bonding. The quilting bee became a much-anticipated event in local communities across the country.
Socializing & Teaching:
While their fingers were busy sewing, women were able to talk to each other and seek advice.
Whether it be about raising children, navigating marriage, or any other shared experience, women were able to lean on each other during their busy quilting bees.
In addition to socializing, quilting bees were great places for women to learn more about the art of quilt making. Women could teach quilting skills and techniques by working together on quilts.
Quilting bees may have been an integral part of life in the 19th Century, but you can still find quilting bees alive and well today.
If you attend a modern quilting bee, you will find quilters working on individual projects in a social setting. This is a shift from the 19th-century version where everyone was helping to finish a single project.
These days, quilting bees are a great way to socialize with people who have a shared hobby. You can find online quilting bees and face-to-face versions in your community.
You can also find versions of quilting bees as a weekend retreat or another fun way to escape the day-to-day grind.
Who Participates in Quilting Bees?
When quilting bees began, they were an activity created for and attended by women.
Children were allowed to look on, but men typically were not. Husbands and other male community members were usually banned from where the quilting bee was.
Quilting has been an important activity for women for centuries, but it is no longer as strictly a gender-specific activity as it once was. Most quilters still tend to be women, as has always been tradition.
However, male quilters exist today, and you might meet with one if you join an online or in-person quilting bee.
What Do You Do at a Quilting Bee?
While the exact details of what you do at a quilting bee can change, the main idea is to quilt!
The earliest quilting bees usually involved many women working on one quilt together. These quilts were sometimes made as an act of charity. They might be intended for in-need community members or to be given to active soldiers serving in the military.
It is more common to find many individual projects happening at a sewing bee.
No matter the structure, the idea is to come and quilt. It may be a chance for you to progress on a personal quilting project or contribute to a community cause.
You can do even today’s online sewing bees collaboratively. You can choose to attend an online sewing bee where you work on your project or contribute to one community.
You might create a single block for collaborative quitting bees and then send it to the organizer. You will then assemble the blocks from all the participants to create one beautiful collaborative quilt.
Of course, just like the original 19th-century quilting bees, it’s not just your fingers that will be busy. These events have always celebrated social bonding and community building.
Quilting bees are not just a chance to be productive but to build friendships and deepen relationships.
It is also common to learn new tips and tricks when attending a quilting bee. Experienced members of the community are often eager to share their expertise. You might also find yourself trading bits of fabric with other attendees for an unexpected twist of color in your project.
With more and more activities structured online, you can sign up for quilting bees arranged like a course. Each time the quilting bee meets, the leader might present a specific design to practice.
As you regularly attend, you will directly develop your skills as you challenge yourself to the new pattern and design.
Where Are the Most Famous Quilting Bees?
A discussion of quilting bees cannot be complete without mentioning Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and the Freedom Quilting Bee.
Gee’s Bend is a small, rural town in Alabama. The women of Gee’s Bend are celebrated as master quiltmakers with their unique style with historical and cultural significance.
When the women of Gee’s Bend began quilting in the 19th Century, slavery still existed in America. Living under the oppression of slavery could not stop the creative spirit of these women.
They began passing on their experimental and abstract quilting style to their daughters and granddaughters through the years of slavery and beyond.
This community’s tradition of coming together to quilt in their way became known as the Freedom Quilting Bee. This bee was not only a way to keep their own families warm but provided the women with economic opportunities as well.
The women of the Freedom Quilting Bee created quilts unlike any others seen in the US. The quilts were more experimental and free-formed as the women used a mixture of fabrics, clothing scraps, and other unconventional materials.
These quilts have been celebrated in museums, magazines, and other historical markers of great quilt making and American culture.
The US Postal Service even designed a set of stamps featuring some of their top quilts.
Even today, the women of this town are still quilting with the next generation.
Even with all the advances in technology, some master quilt makers still prefer to sew by hand.
They may have a sewing machine in the house, but they still prefer the technique they watched their mother and grandmothers perfect.
To meet the legendary women of Gee’s Bend and hear their story, you can check out this video from the New York Times:
Does it Cost Money to Join a Quilting Bee?
The cost of a quilting bee will completely depend on the bee you want to join.
Some events might be completely free and even throw in a complimentary pattern at no extra charge.
Other events can come with a hefty cover charge but might include patterns, materials, direct instruction, refreshments, and other goodies.
Weekend retreats can be even more expensive, but these can include meals, lodging, professional teachers, patterns, and other materials.
Quilting bees can exist in so many different forms and for all sorts of levels and budgets.
Remember, some additional indirect costs might be associated with the quilting bee, even if it is free to join.
You will need to purchase the materials for your quilting project. Fabric, needles, thread, and other sewing notions are essential for everyone planning to attend a quilting bee.
Some bees might require you to follow a certain pattern to join. You might not include the pattern or other relevant materials in the price of admission.
Quilting bees came about to solve the challenging task of finishing quilts for families and community members in need.
However, these events took on greater cultural significance than early attendees could have guessed.
Quilting bees created a network of support and strength for women in a time when they had fewer rights and freedom than they do today.
FaveQuilts: What is a Quilting Bee?
Quiltdom: What is a Quilting Bee and How to Start One
Molli Sparkles: Men and Quilting
National Endowment for the Arts: The Quilts of Gee’s Bend