Quick Piecing: A Short History of Quilting

Quick Piecing: A Short History of Quilting

Carolyn Purnell
Mar 29, 2012

Quilts are a time-honored home staple with a variety of purposes: bedding, decoration, commemoration, education, and artistic expression. Many of us are familiar with at least several of these aspects, but aside from those who are themselves quilters, few probably know the back story of this tradition-steeped craft.

The term "quilt" comes from the Latin word culcita, which means "stuffed sack." While the origins of quilting are uncertain, the practice has been traced back to the ancient Egyptians (c. 3400 B.C.E.). In the late 11th century, crusaders from the Middle East brought the quilt to Europe, and in the Middle Ages, quilted garments became popular among knights, who wore them beneath their armor. The earliest surviving bed quilt is the "Tristan quilt," which was made in Sicily c. 1360 (Image 2).

Fast forward a few centuries and hop across an ocean, and we enter the heyday of the quilt in eighteenth and nineteenth-century America. Quilts, which provided excellent insulation against the cold, were particularly useful for colonists because access to new cloth was sparse, and homespun fabric was very labor intensive. The use of salvaged fabrics made quilting an effective means of maximizing one's resources. Quilting was often a communal activity, and villages would sometimes come together for "quilting bees," where multiple people worked on the same quilt. Quilts were an important part of daily life and were especially important items for young women, who were expected to complete a certain number of quilt tops as part of their trousseau.

In the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution made manufactured cloth much more accessible, and it also marked the invention an important quilting tool: the sewing machine. In the 1850s, Singer started an installment plan, making these machines more feasible to purchase. With the rise of the sewing machine, women could devote more time to quilt-making (as opposed to sewing clothing for their families), and the quilt-making itself took significantly less time. This new technology, along with the new variety of colorful calicos, meant a shift in the style of quilts. A few earlier quilts had been made in block style, but these were uncommon until the 1840s, and the popularity of the style rose throughout the nineteenth century (Image 3). The tail end of the nineteenth century marked the new fad for "crazy quilts." These quilts were made of abstract shapes randomly sewn together and were often further embellished with embroidery (Image 4).

As we well know, the history of quilting certainly doesn't end here. The popularity of quilting continues into the present, and it's experiencing a resurgence at the fingertips of contemporary DIYers and seamstresses. And while this brief history has largely focused on America, many countries have similarly rich quilting traditions. Some major examples are the traditions of Sashiko (Image 5; Japan), Kantha (Image 6; Bangladesh and West Bengal), and Ralli (Image 1; predominantly from Pakistan and western India).

(Images: 1. The Brick House, 2. La Maison du Boutis, 3. NSA, 4. Nebraska State Historical Society, 5. Judy Cooper Textile Images, 6. Vamoos)

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