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A Brief History of Quilting

The technique of fastening two pieces of material together with some sort of stuffing in-between is an ancient idea. Used primarily in China, India, Iran, Turkey and Egypt, quilting was most often a technique used in clothes making. Not only did this allow for decorative touches, but also some very functional advantages. One type of item often made using this technique was a thick doublets designed to be worn under armor, or used as armor itself, depending on the wealth of the individual.

What we think of as quilting today originated in Europe in the 13th - 16th centuries. Primarily, these quilts, designed for use as bed covers, were whole-cloth quilts made from a single large top piece, stuffing, and a single bottom sheet of fabric. These whole-cloth quilts emphasized the maker’s stitching abilities, as the design was heavily reliant on the thousands of tiny stitches painstakingly hand sewn in a myriad of patterns and designs. Additionally, some large appliqué was done - usually in the form of a single, large, central motif.

However, though its roots are in England, the pieced-top quilt that is standard today is truly an American creation, born out of difficult and trying times. Furthermore, it is a testimony to the silent voices of our foremothers as they struggled to make a life and home for themselves and their families in this new land.

The pieced block quilts we know so well hail from colonial America. As taxes rose and political problems mounted, fabric became scarce and it was no longer feasible to make a quilt top out of a single piece of fabric. Thus, the pieced block was born. Also appealing was the fact that in a quilt made up of smaller blocks, no single block was more or less important than any other. This fell right in line with the sentiments of the day as the colonists began to demand the right to shape their own lives and land. As the women of America moved into piecing blocks together, they also changed the focus of their work from relying on a single central motif to giving broader attention to the top design as a whole. Blocks became simpler and were often used as pieces of a larger design not seen as an individual block but only seen as multiple pieces were finished and joined.

As the political landscape of the New World stabilized, most women bought fabric specifically to use in their quilts rather than using scraps. This added a new dimension to quilting as many chose to use deep, contrasting colors, juxtaposing them in striking combinations. Quilting became the social and creative outlet that linked a single woman to her much broader community of fellow women. The “quilting bee” became a popular landscape in the social life of every community. In populated areas, women would attend as many as 20-30 in a single winter. These allowed time for socialization and fellowship as women worked together to finish quilts for social causes, remembrances, special occasions, or simple to restock a neighbor’s linens. Even in rural areas, quilting bees were popular and not to be missed. These “bees” also helped to disseminate new ideas, patterns, and techniques, and introduce young girls to the art of quilting.

Starting at the age of five, a young girl in the late 1700's and 1800’s would begin to learn how to quilt from watching her mother or grandmother. She would first learn to make simple patterns, such as a Nine-Patch, so her attention could be focused on the tiny stitches needed. After which, she would graduate to harder, more complex patterns. These quilts would become part of her hope chest and provide the bedding needed when she married and began to raise her own family. Added to the traditions of something old, new, borrowed, and blue - a bride of this time was expected to have completed at least 12 quilts to take with her into her new life. These quilts would often be shown at the wedding as part of the festivities.

As women moved West, they brought their quilting with them. On the wagon trains, quilts became a necessity used for much more than just keeping warm. Quilts wrapped precious keepsakes for transport; padded seats, boxes, and hard wagon beds; and were used as makeshift coffins as the need arose. They were reminders and links to the families and lives left behind and often held the history of those families in pictorial designs and patterns. Once the family had arrived at its destination, quilts were used as makeshift doors and furniture as the family began settling in. They provided spots of color, interest, and comfort in an often hostile and seemingly empty new land. Quilting bees were a lifeline to other women, especially in the prairies and grasslands where towns and farms stretched so far apart.

As they moved westward, new patterns were created and traded with other women. Pattern names changed, and small additions or subtractions were made to each block as they passed through each woman’s hands. By the late 1800’s, over 4000 pieced quilt patterns were in circulation. To keep up with this growing trend, manufacturers, primarily in the South, pushed out new prints and designs for fabric at a rate of 1000 a year. This led to a diversity and variety of choices never before attainable for the avid quilters, and color palettes began to change and expand.

Helping to spur the quilting phenomenon to new heights was the Crazy Quilt, born in 1876. Derived from exhibitions of Japanese porcelain and laquerwork, and embroidery from the British Royal School of Needlework shown at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, the Crazy Quilt is patchwork at its finest. Combining the haphazard placement of scrap fabrics with the unifying lines of embroidery created an effect similar to the “crazing” of porcelain still in demand today. Crazy Quilts also gave quilters the chance to add in some less-functional pieces of fabric, like satins and velvets, and were the first quilts designed for decorative uses more than functional use. The Centennial Exhibition also featured a large display of American quilts, the first nationwide display ever. This allowed women from all over the country to see each other’s work and helped many to realize that quilting was a common thread that continued to tie them together, even over the vast expanse of land that separated them. This was also the beginning of the Golden Age of quilting in the United States. Sewing machines were plentiful and accessible to many, and young girls were taught to patchwork as some of their first lessons in school.

As the new century began, the quilting industry was born. New techniques and technology caught up with the quilters, and many functional bedspreads could be made faster and cheaper by machine. These bedspreads would often feature printed versions of traditional quilt patterns. Yet, as the widespread movement of quilting began to diminish, new attention began to be focused on genres that had gained little or no attention before. The strikingly bold contrasts of the Amish quilt and the unusual swirls and motifs of the Hawaiian appliqué quilts came to the forefront of the American quilt scene. Additionally, in the East, handmade quilts became banners for social and political causes. One area in which handmade quilts were still very much in demand, however, was fundraising.

As the First World War began, officials encouraged the making of “Liberty Quilts” which were often raffled off to raise funds for the many needs beginning to make their way to the surface of the American consciousness. Women around the country were also encouraged to make quilts for home use so that the store-bought blankets could be sent to the boys serving overseas.

As the 20th century progressed, patterns continued changing and cultural icons began to appear in quilts. “Lucky Lindy’s” airplane silhouette found its way into quilts, as did Mickey Mouse and Popeye. Another change was a focus on competition. Still popular, though not as much as in its heyday of the 1880’s, quilting offered the perfect challenge to interest newspaper readers and customers around the country. Much attention was given to the record-breaking quilt made up of 63,467 hexagons that Albert Small created. Quilting competitions gave folks a place to focus their attention as the struggles of the Great Depression descended upon them. In 1933 and 1934, the Sears and Roebuck Corporation ran a quilting contest for a $1,200 grand prize. Over 25,000 entries were submitted, with the prize going to Margaret Rogers Caden of Lexington, Kentucky for her “Feathered Star,” a pattern still in use today. One other saving grace for quilting emerged from these lean years: under the direction of the WPA, the Index of American Design was created. This index led to the preservation of thousands of quilting patterns and designs that would have otherwise been lost.

The 1950’s saw the decline of quilt making. Yet, on the tail of this decline, the quilt began to be recognized as a “reputable historical object.” Historical museums and art museums began to find value in antique quilts and purchased many important examples for their permanent collections. This, in turn, spurred private collectors to turn to quilt collecting as the new and fashionable thing to do.

The quilt-making decline was short lived, however, as the turbulent years of the 1960’s focused great energy on the creative self. Many people automatically gravitated to the quilt’s handmade naturalness in the desire to distance themselves from the machine-made, industrial times. Additionally, art was changing rapidly and the graphic power of the quilt was seen in a new light.

Two major exhibitions further focused the acceptance of quilts in the 1960’s and beyond. First, The Newark Museum’s exhibition entitled “Optical Quilts” in 1965 was the first display of quilts as art, showing that the designs in quilts of the day were on par with the Opt Art occurring at that time. The second was the Whitney Museum of American Art exhibit entitled “Abstract Designs in American Quilts” in New York in 1971. In this, quilts were purposefully hung against stark white walls, greatly increasing their dramatic visual impact. The art critic from the New York Times, Hilton Kramer, wrote, “For a century or more preceding the self-conscious invention of pictorial abstraction…the anonymous quilt makers of the American provinces created a remarkable succession of visual masterpieces that anticipated many of the forms that were later prized for their originality and courage.”

As the 20th century drew to a close, a new genre of quilting emerged: The Art Quilt. This quilt, while based on centuries old techniques, was never designed to cover a bed. This quilt was design to hang on a wall, drape over a mantle, or reside in a gallery. Because it was never designed for the day-to-day wear of a functional quilt, Art Quilts were free to contain materials, ideas and techniques borrowed from many other sources. Additionally, the wide spread acceptance and encouragement to be innovative has allowed quilters in the late 20th and early 21st centuries the freedom to create what they will with whatever supplies they have at hand.

As with all art, quilts make statements about those who designed and made them. Choice of pattern, color, size, shape, functionality and stitch design change each piece into a unique and original treasure to be handed down through the ages. Unlike other forms of art, quilters are more easily able to find acceptance for cutting-edge ideas and sentiments.

In his book, Quilts: A Living Tradition, Robert Shaw wrote, “Thousands of Americans have slept peacefully under wild and powerful abstractions they would probably never even consider hanging on the walls of their home.”

Never has so much potential been placed in the hands of so many.


The above information comes from Phyllis George's book Living with Quilts: Fifty Great American Quilts. Text by Ann E. Berman. New York: GT, 1998.

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