Like written documents, historical quilts can function as primary sources, yielding information about their makers. Well before they won the right to vote in 1920, women used quilting to express their political and social views. Pattern names like Whig’s Defeat, Abe Lincoln’s Log Cabin, and Grandmother’s Choice (a women’s suffrage pattern) describe moments in American political history, while special embellishments like embroidered verses or the names of political candidates could be used to illustrate a quilter’s personal position. Quilts also provided useful ways to raise money to support religious causes, social reform movements, and war efforts. During the Civil War, patriotic women on both sides of the conflict took up their sewing needles and quilted to raise funds for ill-equipped soldiers. On many occasions during the war, quilts were used as graphic political statements, and some were considered dangerous enough to suppress or destroy.


Pieced quilt with trapunto
Mary Green McPherson
ca. 1861
West Point (White County)
85.5 x 97 in.
Collection of Historic Arkansas Museum
Gift of Florence C. Spore (Mrs. Kenneth L.)
Accession No: 85.39.4

Mary McPherson of West Point, Arkansas, made her quilt to raise funds at a local raffle for Confederate soldiers in need. But far from a humble bed covering, the masterpiece she created was also a political statement, as herninetrapuntostarssymbolize Arkansas as the ninth state to secede from the Union. When word got out about McPherson’s “rebel quilt,” Union soldiers put her under house arrest until the war’s end. In later newspaper accounts, it was said that McPherson’s quilt stayed hidden as it passed hands from plantation to plantation, and attic to cellar.

Trapuntoisan ornamental technique used separately or in combination with all-white, pieced and appliquéd quilting. McPherson’s stuffed stars give her quilt a wonderful three-dimensional quality. To make them, she cut tiny slits in the quilt’s backing, stuffed in bits of cotton batting, and then carefully stitched closed the openings. Applyingthetrapuntowouldhave been the final intricate step of completing her quilt.