Quilting Frames on Ceilings

The Farm Security Administration’s photography project focused on documenting the plight of Americans during Great Depression as a means of eliciting empathy for struggling farmers and migrant workers. In doing so, the photographers criss-crossing the country captured many intimate photos of domestic interiors. In sharecropper homes, small town cottages, and temporary shelters in migratory labor camps, space was at a premium. Yet we have lots of evidence of quilts being made. Where did they do it?

Photographs reveal a creative solution to limited domestic space: quilt frames fitted with ropes and pulleys to suspend quilting frames to the ceiling. In this Idaho migratory labor camp, Russell Lee photographed a room in the small worker home. Clearly multipurpose space, a coffee percolator rests on a kitchen cabinet next to a bureau and mirror. An American flag and several wall calendars serve as the primary decorations. In the corner, a couple sits on two chairs: he is wearing overhauls and playing banjo while she wears an apron and reads a book. A neatly made bed fills the remaining space. Above this domestic scene is a wooden slat quilt frame, tied to the ceiling with ropes.

A quilt frame plays a similar role in a more ramshackle temporary home in California, as photographed by Dorothea Lange. The woman who Lange calls a “grandmother from Oklahoma” sits at a quilting frame with her grandson in a wooden structure. The frame has rope attached to it, so it can be hoisted to the ceiling in order to have flexible living space. The room is all-purpose, with sheets as a makeshift room divider in a corner to create a small private space. A ramshackle shelf indicates that the space also serves as the kitchen, with pans and a coffee pot teetering. The ceiling is open to the rafters, to which the quilt frame is tied. Paper covers some of the walls, while the rest are exposed wood. The grandmother and grandson quilt by the limited light coming through the window.

When Russell Lee conducted his Small Town Study of Pie Town, New Mexico,  among the many photographs he took were over twenty from a square dance held in a home. Lee makes note of one of the features of the room adapted into the dance floor: the quilting frame suspended tight to the ceiling overhead. Similarly, photographs Lee took at the Woodville, California, FSA Migratory Labor Camp show cables tied to the corners of the quilting frame in use in the camp’s community center, suggesting this frame could also be pulleyed away to make floor space. The same technology is in use in the scene depicted in Jack Delano’s photograph of a displaced woman quilting in a smokehouse in Georgia.

At the 2022 Project Threadways Symposium, Roseanne Cash, the legendary musician and a daughter of Johnny Cash, recalled her father’s stories of growing up in the Dyess Colony in Arkansas, one of the largest and earliest of around one hundred federally sponsored planned communities that housed struggling Americans during the Depression. According to Roseanne, Johnny’s grandmother suspended her quilting frame on the ceiling, much like the ones in these photographs.

Since the 1930s, both quilting equipment and housing stock have changed. Fewer quiltmakers hand quilt their bedcovers at home, choosing instead to send quilts out for either longarm quilters or hand quilters—like Amish women running small cottage industries from their homes, charging per yard of quilting thread used. Simultaneously, with increasing suburbanization, more home sewers have dedicated space in their homes or studios, while machine quilting has become much more commonplace, negating the need for large quilting frames. Then there are quilters like me with limited space who improvise in other ways: I live in a small Philadelphia row house without the requisite space to set up my great-grandmother’s quilt frame. Instead, I have a small frame made from PBC pipe that can stretch a section of a larger quilt, as well as a large hoop—around two feet in diameter—for hand quilting on the couch. My friend Eliza Hardy Jones, who similarly lives in a small Philly row home, rents longarm machine use by the hour. My friend Jenna rents a small studio in a former warehouse turned into artists’ spaces; but she prefers to quilt in her lap on the couch, just as I do. Like our 1930s counterparts, we like to have a little space for this leisure activity that brings us joy and satisfaction when many other aspects of life feel out of our control.