Women's History Month

Women's History Month

Dorothy Rankin and Quilting in Champaign County

3/29/2024 | Angela Whitlock, CSRA


In the United States, quilting took off around the second quarter of the 19th century. At this time, more quilts than any other time before were made, which reflected the social and economic changes occurring during this time. Quilts were very useful on long journeys, specifically those involved in the westward migration, and were often given as keepsakes to women making this difficult passage. A wide variety of fabric also became easier to obtain due to improved transportation systems. In addition, artistry that was previously considered simply to be domestic “female” skills, such as needlework, gained new importance and became mediums for creativity.   

Shortly after quilting rose in popularity, Dorothy Jane (MacLeod) Rankin was born in Mattoon, Illinois in 1908. She became a bookkeeper in Champaign, Illinois, as well as a wife and mother. Dorothy was an avid quilter and shared her love of history and quilting with her son, Stanley. Along with her son, she created a multitude of colorful and imaginative quilts throughout the years.  

During the second half of the 20th century, the interest in quilting was on the decline, due to the onset of World War II and how this affected the role of women. A rising number of women went to work outside of the home, serving as substitutes for men who were at war. Dorothy Rankin became a stateside Red Cross volunteer during World War II. She was also an active community member throughout her life.  


While the annual quilt output declined during the war efforts, it did not disappear and in fact, remained strong in many rural areas throughout central and southern Illinois. Quilting was often practiced by small-town homemakers and farm women. Quilting became less popular throughout the 1950s and 1960s but increased in popularity during the late-1970s through the 1990s. During this later period, quilting saw a surge of artistic creativity that was unmatched in any prior period, with quilters often adapting older patterns in innovative ways.  

An example of this is a quilt by Dorothy and Stanley Rankin, called Dorothy’s Leaves. While leaves are a longstanding popular motif, the Leaves quilt is a contemporary interpretation. The quilt features leaves from trees commonly found in the Champaign County area, such as the poplar, sweet gum, maple, or sassafras.  

Dorothy’s love of quilting led her to become a member of the First United Methodist Church Quilters Group. She, along with her son Stanley, also spent many hours volunteering with the statewide Illinois Quilt Research Project, a project that involves registering quilts within the state of Illinois. Roughly 85 percent of the quilts registered within this project date from 1901-1991. Dorothy passed away in 1996, but the memory of all that she created and the work she accomplished in regard to quilting remains preserved through both the accomplishments within the Illinois Quilt Research Project and through the Museum of the Grand Prairie’s virtual exhibit: Textile Traditions: The Quilts of Stanley and Dorothy Rankin. The Rankin name also lives on through the Museum of the Grand Prairie’s recently constructed large artifact storage building, called The Rankin Center. Dorothy’s accomplishments deserve to be honored during Women’s History Month, as her dedication as a quilter may only be surpassed by her dedication as a preservationist within Champaign County.  


Sources: History from the Heart: A Two-Century Heritage of Illinois Quilts & Quilt Making – Quilt Paths Across Illinois by E. Duane Elbert and Rachel Kamm Elbert (book), The American Quilt: A History of Cloth & Comfort 1750-1950 by Roderick Kiracofe & Mary Elizabeth Johnson (book), and Textile Traditions: The Quilts of Stanley and Dorothy Rankin (virtual exhibit).  

Image Credit: from Museum of the Grand Prairie’s virtual exhibit, Textile Traditions: The Quilts of Stanley and Dorothy Rankin, Leaves quilt.