What do you think of when you hear the term "spinster"? An old maid? An older, unmarried lady? A female of an age that it is doubtful to marry? A woman who is too set in her ways to be marriage material? Any of these... or perhaps a combination of these?
The truth of the matter is that the word, "spinster" originally applied to young girls who were still spinning the flax that would be woven into the linen for their dower chests (sometimes called "hope chests" now). Having a dower chest completed before entering into marriage is a centuries old tradition, but really became popular in the mid-1950's in the USA. Most chests were wooden, with ornate carvings or paintings on them. Some were cedar chests (I still have mine!) or even metal foot lockers. The amount of time it would take to spin and weave enough table and bed linen and piece enough quilts with which to start housekeeping was enormous. This is why girls began working on their dower chests from early on in their young lives, as this was a huge portion of her dowery. A "good" bride would have no less than 12 of her best quilts pieced and ready for the frame and finishing for her chest when the time came for her to wed.
The very best of the quilts in the dower chest was referred to as the "bride's quilt". These quilts were especially beautiful. By the time a young girl got around to making this special quilt, she had had plenty of practice on the rest of her quilts. She knew which colors and patterns she loved the most. She had probably planned and discarded many ideas before making her final decision. In fact, you might say that the first 10 or so quilts were her "practice" quilts leading up to the biggie, the bridal quilt.
When the time came to finish all of the quilts, the young lady would invite friends, family, and neighbors to a central location to quilt her pieced tops. This was often referred to as a "quilting bee" and it was as much of a formal announcement of an engagement as if it had been published in the local newspaper. These "quilting bee" events were seen as entertainment and provided occasions for other things (pot luck dinners, barn raisings, etc.). Although quilting bees are considered a purely American tradition for a form of entertainment, today groups of women who come together quite regularly to quilt in the northern regions of England call themselves, "quilting clubs". Quilting clubs in the USA are also popping up everywhere (and have been for many years), mostly via quilt shops, but also online.
In essence, bridal quilts gave people excuses to gather together to socialize, while at the same time helping to provide a dowery for her upcoming marriage. A quilting bee is a tradition that I have sadly not had the pleasure of participating in, but hope to one day! I would definitely want to practice on my quilting skills first, though. :)
Today, antique bridal quilts are very valuable. And high quality quilts are difficult, but not impossible, to find. These quilts can be found in museums and private collections.
Hopefully, this article has been informative and comments are definitely appreciated!