In the 1930s, during the early years of the Great Depression, Jack and Clara Tillotson started the Colonial Readicut Quilt Block Company in Kansas City. The company began as a cottage industry specializing in cut-to-size quilt blocks and patches. Due to the tough economic climate it became more feasible to sell paper patterns for a dime each rather than finished quilts or pre-cut quilt kits.
The Tillotsons began advertising their designs around the country in newspapers and magazines. The ads resembled a normal newspaper column but included some charming quilt lore and instructions for buying a pattern or booklet through the mail from the couple’s newly renamed business, The Colonial Company. The company’s nom-de-plume, Aunt Martha, became their trademark after a Chicago editor decided the newspaper features needed a grandmotherly name with the right touch of Colonial history. Aunt Martha reminded readers of both Martha Washington and everybody’s quilt-making Aunt.
As demand for the patterns grew, John and Clara created new designs based off antique patterns found in library books, sketches of quilts from county fairs, and mail order contests where customers would submit their personal work. They also hired professional designers, among them Marguerite Weaver, whose specialty was designing pillow slips, finger towels, and original patchwork.
The company occasionally gathered a group of single patterns into packets called Aunt Martha’s Work Basket, an idea that in 1935 developed into a monthly periodical named The Work Basket. This small publication contained patterns for all kinds of needlework ~ embroidery, crochet, appliqué, and quilting. In addition to “needlecraft for pleasure and profit,” readers found recipes and household tips. The Colonial Company’s pattern catalog and Work Basket magazine shared patterns, so a design first printed in the magazine might later appear in the catalog as an Aunt Martha pattern design.
In 1949 the company split when the Tillotson family sold the Aunt Martha arm of the business to Clifford and Alma Swenson. The Swensons renamed the company, Aunt Martha’s Studios. The Tillotson family retained the Work Basket arm of the business and renamed the company, Modern Handcraft. The newly renamed publishing firm remained in Kansas City and continued to publish multiple craft and gardening magazines for many years to come. Work Basket magazine continued to feature new patterns designed by Aunt Martha’s Studios.
In 1974 the Swenson family sold the business to its present owner, the Price family of Kansas City. Shortly thereafter the company was renamed, Colonial Patterns, Inc. Throughout its history, Colonial Patterns, Inc. has produced thousands of needlecraft patterns under the Aunt Martha’s® trademark and continues to publish new designs for quilting, embroidery, and textile painting.
In 2010 the company introduced a new line of embroidery patterns, Stitcher’s Revolution®. This new line of patterns was created to bridge the gap between young and old stitchers by including instructions and color suggestions with each packet. The company has been encouraged by the success of Stitcher’s Revolution® because it has given grandmothers a chance to pass along the art of embroidery to the next generation. Stitcher’s Revolution® patterns are designed to be fun, fast, and fulfilling so that every stitcher, young and old, can experience the relaxing and therapeutic effects of the needlearts.
Colonial Patterns, Inc. is still located in Kansas City, Missouri, in the Historic River Market. It remains an American-owned family business.