Main character. Following a proposal of marriage from her boyfriend Sam (Dermot Mulroney), Finn decides to visit her great aunt and grandmother to finish her thesis and think over the proposal. At her grandmother's house, a quilting group congregates, and she's shocked and surprised to discover that the current quilt that they're working on is a wedding gift for when she gets married. The theme of the quilt is "where love resides". As Finn is unsure whether she's ready for marriage or whether he's "The One", the stories of the women in the quilting group open her eyes to the different kinds of love that exist. During her time at her grandmother's house, she meets Leon (Johnathon Schaech) at the local pool and embarks on a brief affair with him. Eventually, wrapped in her quilt and following a crow (reminiscent of Anna's tale about her aunt), she comes across Sam and chooses to stay with him.
When she was in her early twenties, Sophia (Samantha Mathis/Lois Smith) was a talented diver with dreams of escaping her small town and overbearing mother. One day she meets Preston Richards (Loren Dean) while diving at the local pool and romance ensues. He's attracted by her fearlessness and she believes he can take her away from her current, oppressive way of life. However, motherhood turns out to be just as, if not more, oppressive, and married life soon grinds her down. With three children and little help from her husband who is frequently away because of his job, she no longer has time to dive and eventually forgets the feeling of freedom and escape it gives her. One day she snaps at her husband for digging a pond in the back garden. In an attempt to remind her of the girl he fell in love with, he tells her the pond is for her to wade in. After she rejects his efforts, he realizes that her free spirit is gone. One morning he leaves for work, never to return. Abandoned, bitter, and trapped in a life she didn't want, Sophia ironically ends up like her overbearing mother, particularly in her relationship with Finn.
Years later, when the wind blows part of Finn's thesis into the pond, she wades in to get it. With her feet in the pool, she remembers what her husband tried to remind her of all those years ago, and one of the last scenes shows her diving off the high dive.
Em (Jean Simmons/Joanna Going) marries young, like most of the women in the story. Despite the promiscuity of her artistic husband Dean (Derrick O'Connor/Tim Guinee), she stays with him for a period of time. Eventually, after discovering yet another affair, she leaves him whilst pregnant. She returns to her parents' home, but it still takes three months before Dean comes to find her. He begs forgiveness yet again, and her parents pack her bags, loading them into Dean's car. At this point, Em has no choice but to return to her broken life.
Years later, she suspects Constance is having an affair with Dean, which causes friction between the two. Later, she realizes that, in his own way, Dean does truly love her when she takes shelter in his studio during a sudden wind storm and discovers numerous paintings of her telling the story of their life together over the years.
Gladiola (Glady) Joe (Claire Danes/Anne Bancroft) and Hyacinth (Hy) (Alicia Goranson/Ellen Burstyn) are Finn’s great aunt and grandmother and sisters to one another. At one point, Hy goes to visit her dying husband in the hospital. Despite her deep love for her husband, she leaves the hospital and sleeps with Glady’s husband (Rip Torn) in a moment of weakness and tragic emotion. After Glady discovers the truth, she smashes every one of her porcelain figurines and plasters them onto the wall of the laundry room as a reminder of her anger. Glady never really forgives her husband and does not forgive Hy until the end of the movie. Their reconciliation is symbolized by the demolition of the plastered walls in the laundry room when Glady realizes that her love for her sister overcomes her feelings of betrayal.
Constance (Kate Nelligan) had a happy and fulfilling marriage until her husband, Howell (Richard Jenkins), died, leaving her a young widow. While he was alive, Howell gave Constance a dog to keep her company. Although it is rumored that she is having an affair with Em's husband, Dean, she knows that her love for her husband and her dog are her true companions. Her panel for Finn's wedding quilt depicts a yellow rose bush under which she and Howell buried the dog after it died.
As a young servant, Anna (María Celedonio/Maya Angelou) starts an affair with her boss's son, Beck (Jared Leto), who's visiting from Chicago. She becomes pregnant by him, and when her great aunt finds out about the pregnancy she sends Anna away with their family story quilt (which she had sold to the boss's wife). During her pregnancy, Anna met Glady and Hyacinth when she was taken in by their family. She becomes particularly close with Glady, eventually teaching her to quilt. During one of these quilting lessons, she starts labor, eventually giving birth to Marianna (Alfre Woodard). It's only then that Anna realizes that her fancy notion of romantic love was nothing in comparison to the maternal love she feels for Marianna. Anna now orchestrates the quilting group.
Marianna (Alfre Woodard) gives the appearance of being in love with her promiscuous freedom until a moment of vulnerability comes in a conversation with Finn. She speaks of a man that she met in France. They had met and spent one evening together during which they connected over a meeting of minds before she discovered that he was married. Although she has taken many lovers since, she realizes this man is her soulmate and she doesn't even know his name.Winona Ryder as Finn Dodd
Kaelynn and Sara Craddick as young Finn Dodd
Anne Bancroft as Glady Joe Cleary
Claire Danes as young Glady Joe Cleary
Ellen Burstyn as Hy Dodd
Lecy Goranson as young Hy Dodd
Lois Smith as Sophia Darling Richards
Samantha Mathis as young Sophia
Jean Simmons as Em Reed
Kate Nelligan as Constance Saunders
Alfre Woodard as Marianna
Maya Angelou as Anna
Kate Capshaw as Sally Dodd
Loren Dean as Preston Richards
Dermot Mulroney as Sam
Derrick O'Connor as Dean
Tim Guinee as young Dean
Rip Torn as Arthur Cleary
Mykelti Williamson as Winston
Jared Leto as Beck
Adam Baldwin as Mr. Dodd
Johnathon Schaech as Leon
Denis Arndt as James
Paige and Ryanne Kettner as Little Evie/Little Duff
Tamala Jones as Anna's Great Grandmother
How to Make an American Quilt received mixed reviews and holds a 61% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 33 reviews.
Film critic Roger Ebert commended the stories involving Woodard and Capshaw's characters for being the most heartfelt but found the rest of them devoid of any emotional resonance compared to the tales told in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, saying that they have lives "largely recycled from sweet movies and tasteful romantic novels."