In American culture, what does a patchwork quilt symbolize?

In American culture, a patchwork quilt symbolizes family, resourcefulness, the connection between the past and present, creativity, and heritage. In Alice Walker's short story "Everyday Use," the traditional family quilts symbolically represent the generational struggles and accomplishments of the Johnson family.

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In American culture as well as other cultures, a patchwork quilt represents a labor of love, as well as resourcefulness and often a glimpse into a family's past. Quilts became well-known as both an outlet for creativity and a thrifty way to keep warm, with pieces of old clothing becoming...

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In American culture as well as other cultures, a patchwork quilt represents a labor of love, as well as resourcefulness and often a glimpse into a family's past. Quilts became well-known as both an outlet for creativity and a thrifty way to keep warm, with pieces of old clothing becoming something to be upcycled into something that can be used again.

For example, in "Everyday Use," the traditional quilts which Dee admires when returning to visit her mother and sister with her new boyfriend in tow, hold great sentimental value, albeit not to Dee. For starters, they had been made by Dee and Maggie's grandmother, and secondly, for Maggie and her mother, who lived a very simple life, they were a way to keep warm.

In this story, the quilts came to represent the conflict between Dee, with her sophisticated new life, and Mama and Maggie, with their close bond. For Dee, the quilts represent traditional art that will make a stylish talking point in her home. For Maggie, to whom her mother gives the quilts, they hold fond memories and family values.

I would argue that Mama and Maggie's feelings about their family's quilt are reflective of what most Americans feel about patchwork quilts. They are items of huge sentimental value which represent either their own labors or that of a parent, grandparent, or great grandparent.

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Patchwork quilts symbolically represent the connection between the past and present, kinship, resourcefulness, and a celebration of female creativity. In America, many women began quilting out of necessity, and the traditional creative process was passed down through generations. Those who could not afford linens, comforters, or sheets began quilting to keep their family members warm, covered, and comfortable. Resourceful, skilled women used quilting as a creative outlet by taking old scraps of clothing and turning them into functional fabrics. Patchwork quilts also represent the enduring legacies of families and their generational struggles to survive and succeed in America. In Alice Walker's "Everyday Use," the traditional quilts were made from pieces of Grandma Dee's old clothing, Grandpa Jarrell’s paisley shirt, and Great Grandpa Ezra's Civil War uniform. The quilts symbolically chronicle the Johnson family's generational trials and tribulations while simultaneously depicting their proud heritage.

In the story, Mama Johnson and Maggie view the traditional family quilts differently than Dee, who believes that they should be displayed for aesthetic purposes only, rather than used as everyday objects. Mama Johnson and Maggie recognize the quilts as sentimental items and view them as pieces of living history. Despite being educated and articulate, Dee fails to recognize the quilts as valuable remnants of history, which represent her family’s cultural heritage. Mama Johnson knows that Maggie understands the sentimental value of the quilts and what they mean to the Johnson family, which is why she refuses to give them to Dee.

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Similar to pieces of literature, patchwork quilts tell a story and may provide a glimpse into a way of life. Quilts often symbolize resourcefulness, as quilters use what resources they have to make a quilt as a covering. Quilts can also symbolize heritage, as they are created using fabrics that represent a moment in time. In the case of "Everyday Use," for example, the hand-stitched quilts that Dee admires contain pieces of clothing that belonged to relatives. Mama shares that the quilts contain fabric worn by her mother, grandmother, and grandfather. One small piece is from a uniform worn by a great-grandfather in the Civil War.

While Mama and Dee disagree on how the quilts should be used, they both have valid arguments. Though quilts were often made for the practical purpose of keeping warm, they are also often seen as pieces of art because of the fabrics used and the designs created.

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Quilting is symbolic of a family tradition, as the previous educator mentioned. This is however, a matrilineal tradition. Among black women quilting was traditionally about practicality. Families had to keep warm during the winter months, but black women often did not have access to the fabrics that many white women could afford to make linens. Therefore, they used bits of old clothing, some of which was historically significant. In the story, "one teeny faded blue piece, about the size of a penny matchbox" came "from Great Grandpa Ezra's uniform that he wore in the Civil War."

Quilting was also a way for these women to have a creative outlet. Grandma Dee stitched quilts into different patterns, one was "in the Lone Star Pattern" and "[t]he other was Walk Around the Mountain." Black Southern women, often crushed by poverty and the demands of labor, did not have the leisure time to pursue the arts, so they found ways to be creative within their domestic chores. Alice Walker talks about this more in-depth in her essay "In Search of Our Mother's Gardens."

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In “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker, the quilt is a symbolic family heirloom. Mrs. Johnson and her daughter Maggie agree that it represents snippets of life from past generations. The handmade quilt was lovingly pieced by the grandmother and stitched by Big Dee using swatches of shirts, dresses, and even a piece of their grandfather’s Civil War uniform. Mrs. Johnson has been saving the quilts for Maggie who learned to quilt from her grandmother. When Dee, Maggie’s older sister, arrives home to visit the world she left behind when she went off to school, she tries to take the quilts. She says she will hang them up as a sign of her heritage. Maggie tells her to take them but Mrs. Johnson gives them to Maggie, who she hopes will put them to “everyday use,” keeping the family memories alive instead of hanging them on a wall as a museum piece. They are unique to their family, therefore are symbolic of their family heritage and memories, not the heritage of a whole race, which is what Dee suggests.

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