Have you ever wondered about the history of quilting? Quilting is such an interesting and beautiful art form. How long have people been quilting? Who made the first quilt? How was the craft developed?
Today, we’ll take you through the entire history of quilting, from the evidence of quilting in ancient times to where we are now.
What Is Quilting?
Quilting is a sewing technique that involves two layers of fabric, usually with an insulating interior layer in between, sewn together with multiple rows of stitching. Quilting was used primarily for making clothing in places like China, the Middle East, North Africa, and some areas of Europe. Nowadays, quilting has become synonymous with blankets and wall hangings.
Making a quilt is a complex, multistep process. First, the quilter must create a quilt top, which is the decorative portion of the quilt. Quilt tops are usually assembled from a variety of different quilt blocks, made by cutting patches and then stitching them together. Quilt top designs can be very simple or incredibly complex. (Check out our website for some beautiful quilting patterns, such as the Eve.)
Once the quilt top is assembled, batting, or wadding, usually made from cotton, polyester, wool, or flannel, is sandwiched between the quilt top and the backing. These three layers are then basted or pinned together. Now, the quilter will attach them all together by quilting them or sewing multiple rows of decorative stitching onto the quilt. These stitches can be done by hand, home sewing machine, or commercial sewing machine. They can be simple straight lines or more decorative patterns. Finally, the outer raw edges of the quilt are either turned together or bound with additional fabric.
While this is the type of quilting we associate the word with today, this was not always the case. Throughout history, quilting was used to make warm clothing, body armor, and other garments.
Early Evidence Of Quilting
Archeologists have found evidence of quilting that can be traced all the way back to Ancient Egypt. One of the best examples of this is an ivory carving that is currently on display at The British Museum. This carving was recovered from the Temple of Osiris at Abydos in 1903, and it features the king of the First Egyptian Dynasty wearing a cloak or a mantle that appears to be quilted. Not only was quilting likely used to make clothing in ancient times, but it may also have been used to make ceremonial or sacred garments for royalty.
Quilt fragments have been recovered through tomb excavations throughout Asia and the Middle East. However, these are just fragments. The earliest existing quilt we have in its entirety is the Tristan Quilt, made in 14th century Sicily. The Tristan Quilt is a beautiful piece that is heavily embellished with trapunto, also known as corded or stuffed quilting. One section of the quilt is on display in the V&A Museum in London, England, and another is in the Bargello Palace in Florence, Italy. Both of these pieces feature scenes from the legend of Tristan and Isolde. They’re incredibly detailed, and this expertise indicates that quilting was already an incredibly evolved craft by the 14th century.
Europeans, however, did not invent the art of quilting. Apparently, quilting became known to Europe during the Crusades. It was discovered that Turkish crusaders wore thick fabric quilted together under their armor for increased protection and warmth. People in colder areas of Europe adopted the technique to create garments, which would help to keep them warm and protect them from the elements.
Quilting In America
Quilting as a craft came to America with the early Puritans. In the early days of America, quilts were made for purely practical reasons. Quilts were essential for early settlers to keep warm at night and were often hung up in windows to help reduce the cold. These quilts were purely functional; the women making them usually had little to no time to focus on decoration. Many quilts were made from fabric scraps and old clothing, as fabric was extremely scarce and expensive. Quilts that had been worn out were usually cut apart so the fabric could be reused for another quilt.
As more and more settlers came to America, the art of quilting began to evolve. In the pre-Revolutionary American colonies, England and France supplied nearly all the fabric, but clothing and linens were usually made at home. By the early 19th century. America began producing cheap cotton fabrics in a large array of prints. This helped make pieced and appliqued decorative quilts more affordable, instead of being reserved for only the wealthiest families like in the early days of America.
The Golden Age of American Quilting
This influx of cheap fabric led to a golden age of quilting in America. The quilts from this time period were often made in the medallion style, which involves a variety of intricate borders surrounding a patchwork center. In the 1840s, a popular new style emerged. This was the Baltimore Album, or Friendship Quilt, made from elaborately appliquéd figures, often with each block containing a different design. This design remained popular throughout the 19th century. Friendship quilts were often used as a bonding activity, where multiple people would make a quilt block, and then all the blocks would be sewn together in a final quilt. This quilt could then be bestowed upon a friend for a special occasion, such as a wedding, a birthday, etc.
Quilting was an incredibly social activity. Quilting was taught to daughters by their mothers from an early age, and often, women in more rural areas would gather for quilting bees or quilting circles. These events helped to develop the craft and were often cathartic for women who faced hard times in the early Americas.
The art of quilting took a huge leap forward in the 1940s when the sewing machine was invented. This invention radically changed home sewing, and, thanks to a pay-by-installment plan popularized by a man named L.M. Singer, sewing machines were relatively affordable. With so many people now being able to sew garments and other household items quickly and efficiently, many now had time for more leisurely, decorative projects, such as embroidery and quilting.
In the 1930s, when the Great Depression hit, fabric became scarce once again. It was during this time that the feedsack quilt became popular. Companies noticed that many people were reusing cloth sacks that held animal feed, flour, and other staples for garments and blankets. These companies began to package their products in cheerful prints to provide struggling families with decorative fabrics to use for clothing and quilts.
The Quilting Revival
After the Great Depression, quilting remained fairly stagnant for a few decades. WWII forced quilting to become a purely practical act again, and after the war, more women began to join the workforce and didn’t have time to devote to intricate, decorative quilts.
The 1970s marked a quilting revival. This is often attributed to the fact that America’s bicentennial was celebrated in 1976, and this event generated a nostalgic interest in American crafts.
Another major influence was thought to be a 1971 museum exhibit called “Abstract Design in American Quilts,” curated by Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. This exhibit saw a variety of vintage quilts displayed like modern art. This exhibit helped to develop a phenomenon known as “art quilts,” or quilts that are purely for display, not for practical use.
During the 70s and 80s, people began to take quilting more seriously as an art form. Organizations and publications such as Quilter’s Newsletter Magazine, Quilt World, The American Quilter, The International Quilt Festival, American Quilt Study Group, National Quilting Association, Quilt Heritage Foundation, and Alliance for American Quilts were all founded during this time.
Today, the art of quilting continues to evolve and change. It is recognized as a serious art form, and many quilts are on display in museums around the world. Innovations such as the rotary cutter and the quilting foot have allowed quilters to make more and more intricate, beautiful works of art. With so much innovation in the world of quilting, who knows what may be created next?
Quilting is a complex, beautiful art form with a long, rich history. Evidence of early quilts can be traced back to ancient times when quilting techniques were mostly used to make warm clothes and protective armor. Quilting has evolved greatly over time and gone from a purely practical craft to a bonafide art form, with quilts now being displayed in museums all around the globe.
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