What is the importance of the quilt in the story, and for Dee, Mamma, and Maggie?
The quilts as metaphors
The quilt is a metaphor for the lives of Dee, Maggie, and her mother. Each square is a part of the family heritage, symbolic of its members. For instance, there is one very small, faded blue piece, a part of a Union uniform belonging to Great Grandpa Ezra. There are, likewise, other squares made from scraps of dresses worn by Grandma Dee. Thus, the intended purpose of the quilts for each woman indicates her perspective on them.
The use of the quilts as blankets involves the fabrics' touching a living member of the family, rather than the quilts hanging in an isolated spot, away from any human contact. But, Dee, who has changed her name to Wangero and wants the quilts as artifacts, is appalled when she is told that the mother intends to give two of the quilts to Maggie,
"Maggie can't appreciate these quilts!...She'd probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use."
This remark is, of course, ironic since the mother gives the quilts to Maggie because she will use them. For the mother, the quilts are part of beings who have lived and died, relatives whose heritage is woven together into the quilts, quilts that carry life and, metaphorically, unify the lives of the past with those of the present.
The quilts as symbols
The quilts also symbolize the conflict of holding to tradition with that of progressive thinking. Wangero, who has joined the new black nationalist movement rejects anything that is traditional or connected to the "oppressors." She changes her name and divorces herself from any objects that reflect "servitude." When the mother says that Maggie "knows how to quilt," Wangero disgustedly retorts that her sister should "make something" of herself; she should reject the old ways and not be "backward," and become more progressive.