Four decades of quilts: a quick history

Detail from Back-Basting Applique by Barbara EikmeierHow long have you been quilting? How have your quilts changed over time? What kinds of tools did you have at your disposal when you started—and what did you do without? Today we take a stroll down memory lane with two popular authors as they tell us about a new presentation they’re taking on the road: “Four Decades of Quilting.” From the first quilt revival of the 1970s to the technological boom of the new millennium, these veteran quilters are on a mission to share a history of quiltmaking from the maker’s point of view.

Detail from On-Point Patchwork by Donna Lynn ThomasIn their presentation, Barbara Eikmeier and Donna Lynn Thomas shed light on quiltmaking in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s with quilts from their own collections, along with a look at popular techniques, fabrics, threads, battings, patterns, books, technology, and more from each period. Read on to spur your own memories—or for a fascinating history lesson—depending on when your own quiltmaking journey began!

P.S.: You can invite Barbara and Donna to give their presentation at your local quilt guild or group! Learn how at the bottom of this post.

Donna and BarbaraThis summer, Donna Thomas (left) and I (Barbara Eikmeier, right) presented a program for our local library. The topic was 40 years of quilt history—in an hour.

Donna and I wanted to do something for the local library that highlighted their quilt books and at the same time showed how much quilting has changed during the current quilt revival. Since we’re both authors and live near each other, we thought it would be fun to do a joint program.

Small Talk by Donna Lynn ThomasIt was helpful to have a like-minded quilting buddy to team up with—one of us loves piecing (Donna), the other, appliqué (me). We dug into our personal archives to come up with representational quilts, sewing gadgets, books, and magazines to create displays for each decade. We remembered pivotal events—like the introduction of the rotary cutter and the first time a machine-quilted quilt won the top award at the American Quilter’s Society national quilt show in Paducah, Kentucky.

Kids Can Quilt by Barbara EikmeierFriends since 2010, Donna and I knew about each other for many years before meeting in person. In the 1990s we were both Army wives, teaching quilting classes at military bases halfway around the world from each other; both Martingale authors for many years; and both friends with quilter and author Sally Schneider. Yet we’d never met. We learned that some of our students, other military wives, had taken classes from each of us. They asked, “Do you know Barb Eikmeier?” or “Do you know Donna Thomas?” We answered, “No, but I should know her!” Every few years we moved to new army posts, one of us leaving just as the other arrived. Eventually, our husbands retired from the Army and we both ended up in Kansas, living just a few miles apart.

As we brainstormed ideas for the library talk, we discovered how similar our pasts were—not just the military connection, but our quilting journeys as well. It was a “kindred spirit” moment when we discovered that our first sewing machines were the same make and model: a Singer Genie. Donna couldn’t believe that I still had mine and decided it had to be a part of our talk. That led to the idea of showing a machine for each decade.

Sewing machines from the 1970s
Sewing machines from the ’70s: the Singer Genie!

Sewing machines from the 1980s
Sewing machines from the ’80s: more knobs—more ways to create.

Sewing machines from the 1990s
Sewing machines from the ’90s: programming options are introduced.

Sewing machines from the 2000s
Sewing machines from the 2000s: the onset of technology, with no end in sight.

Initially shy about exhibiting our first quilts, we got over it when we needed examples of quilts from the ’70s. We made a pact: I’ll show mine if you show yours.

Quilts from the 70s
Quilts from the ’70s.

I officially learned to quilt in 1984, but I read about “patchwork” in one of my mom’s magazines years earlier. I sewed a “Streak of Lightning” quilt for my bed (hanging in the photo above). I was 16 and I loved that bold quilt! After hanging it at the library, I stepped back to look and couldn’t help but think of today’s modern quilt movement.

Donna’s Dresden Plate quilt from the 1970s (pictured on the table, above left) was made with polyester denim and clothing scraps. She used two layers of extra-loft batting to make it thick and fluffy—but today it’s flat. What happened to all that fluff? Battings are so much better today!

The night of our presentation, we unloaded crate after crate of quilts and related stuff, hauled it into the library meeting room, and began to set up. As we arranged books, magazines, fabrics, and sewing implements for each era, we stopped to reminisce: “I can’t believe you still have that old catalog!” “You brought thimbles! Do you remember what a big thing it was to find the right thimble?”

Setting up for quilting history
Setting up, decade by decade.

Donna’s husband counted down the time, saying, “People are starting to arrive. You’re almost out of time.” Later I heard him say, “They could have set up faster if they would have quit going down memory lane!” He was right, but where’s the fun in that?

The quilting crowd gathers!The chairs filled with visitors. It was show time! We walked our guests through the exhibits, pointing out that the ’70s were about traditional handwork, while the ’80s transitioned to machine work and quick-piecing techniques. The ’90s was about precision, art quilts, and long-arm quilting, and the present-day focus is on gadgets, digital technology, online social groups, and the modern-quilt movement. Heads nodded with familiarity as we moved through the years, reviewing piecing and appliqué techniques, tools, publications, sewing-machine technology, and changes in fabrics, battings, and threads. We ended with a show-and-tell of projects from our current books.

Quilting history show and tell

Whew! We did it! 40 years of quilt history in an hour!

What an amazing peek into quiltmaking history—with quilters who lived it! To bring Donna and Barb’s presentation to your area, print this flyer and let your local quilt guild or group know about it. You can also contact either author directly for more information.

Email: (Barbara) or (Donna)
Websites: or

Learn more about Barb and Donna’s personal quiltmaking journeys in their latest books:

Back-Basting Applique Step by Step Patchwork Palette

Back-Basting Appliqué, Step by Step by Barbara J. Eikmeier; Patchwork Palette by Donna Lynn Thomas (look for Donna’s upcoming book, On-Point Patchwork, in November).

In which decade did you become a quilter? Share the start of your quiltmaking history in the comments!

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