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Piecing It All Together: Technical Documentation for Quilting

By Anna Hulseberg



Katherine Durack writes that women are “largely absent” from the “recorded disciplinary past” of technical communication, in part because their work has been historically associated with the household, which is not considered an important setting for technical communication (2004, 36). In order to help fill some of the gaps in this history, I examined quilting, a field in which women are key creators and users of technical communication for everyday use. As Robert Shaw argues, “women have defined quiltmaking, set its standards, outlined its parameters, and judged its accomplishments” (1995, 9).


Technical documentation for quilting goes back centuries. In the 1800s, Minnesota women learned about quilt patterns from new settlers by “seeing new quilts and copying them,” since patterns “were not printed with any frequency until after 1900” (MQP 2005, 118). Patterns appeared in women’s magazines, and beginning in the 1890s, they were available for a dime with the purchase of yard goods from the Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs (MQP 2005, 118). Quilters also shared documentation through letters: “a relative or friend might send a scrap of fabric from a quilt she was making and include a sketch of the block she was using” (MQP 2005, 118).


The quilting industry developed throughout the 1900s. Stearns and Foster Company “became a potent force in the promotion of quilting in 1928 when it decided to change the packaging of its cotton batting to include patterns on the inside of the wrappers” (MQP 2005, 176-77). Women such as Marie Webster played a leading role in the industry. The “twentieth century’s first trendsetting designer,” she owned a mail-order quilt design business and published the first book about American quilting in 1915 (MQP 2005, 176).


Quilting is a thriving industry today. In 2003, one in seven American households had a quilter, and the average quilter spent nearly $2,000 annually on the hobby (MQP 2005).


To learn more about technical communication for quilting, I interviewed my co-worker Diane, an avid quiltmaker. She considers quilting to be both a creative outlet and a means to produce handmade gifts for family and friends.


Quilting documentation has come a long way since the days of mail order catalogs.  Diane’s documentation comes from a variety of sources, including books, magazines, pattern packaging, kits, and the Internet.


The first quilt Diane made had poor instructions, and after struggling through them, she gained an appreciation for high-quality documentation. One of her favorite quilting books is Beginner’s Luck by Minnesota’s own Lynette Jensen. Most of the book consists of simple, clear, numbered instructions, with colorful diagrams and useful tips. The final chapter, “General Instructions,” is a reference for “techniques that are repeated from project to project” (Jensen 2003, 1), from rotary cutting to quilt backing basics. Diane says of the book: “you almost don’t have to read the directions sometimes because the diagrams are so good” (Christensen 2006).


colonial women


From the women who enclosed quilt patterns in their letters in the 1800s to Lynette Jensen today, women have long created technical documentation for quilting.


From the quilter who ordered patterns from the Sears catalog in 1890 to my co-worker Diane,



woman quilting


According to Shaw, “quilt teaching has become a mini-industry in its own right and dozens of well-known quiltmakers earn a large portion of their income traveling and teaching classes. Teachers are usually known through their books, which often focus on a particular type of quilt or approach to quiltmaking” (Shaw 1995, 101). These books require high-quality documentation to instruct in the intricacies of quilting.







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women continue to use quilting documentation to craft both heirlooms and practical, everyday quilts.

Works Cited


Christensen, Diane. Personal interview by Anna Hulseberg. St. Peter, MN, March 1, 2006.


Durack, Katherine T. “Gender, Technology, and the History of Technical Communication.” In Central Works in Technical Communication, ed. Johndan Johnson-Eilola, 35-43. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.


Jensen, Lynette. Beginner’s Luck. Chaska, MN: Publishing Solutions, 2003.


Minnesota Quilt Project (MQP). Minnesota Quilts: Creating Connections with Our Past. Stillwater, Minn.: Voyageur Press, 2005.


Shaw, Robert. Quilts: A Living Tradition. [New York?]: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, 1995