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The History of Quilting

Amish Quilt
By Barb Bergquist

Have you ever wondered when quilting got started and how it evolved into the craft it is today?  I got curious one day and this is what I found.

First, the word, quilting, defines the act of stitching together two layers of fabric between padding.  Quilting can be traced back as far as ancient Egypt.  In the British Museum is an ivory carving from the Temple of Osiris at Abydos found in 1903 which features the king of the First Egyptian Dynasty wearing a cloak or mantle that appears to be quilted.

Evidence of quilt work was found in Asia in late BC and early AD years.  Quilting became evident in Europe during the 12th century when it was discovered that the Crusaders wore quilted garments under their armor for comfort, warmth and protection.

Evidence of many more quilt works were found in Europe throughout time and many, though described as obviously beautiful works, were usually made to be used.  One of the earliest decorative quilts made in the 14th century is the Tristan Quilt.  Made in Sicily, it is one of the oldest surviving quilts in the world.  You can find a section in the V&A Museum in London, England and another in the Bargello Palace in Florence, Italy.

Obviously, quilting as a craft came to America with the early Puritans.  Quilts were made in those early days in America to serve a purpose, to provide warmth at night and to cover doors and windows to help reduce cold.  Quilts were functional, with little time for women to create decorative quilts.  Often times money and other resources were limited so quilts were made with what was available, often old clothing no longer needed by family members.  Worn quilts were patched together or cut apart to make another usable quilt.  Those early quilts tell the history not only of early American quilting, but also the early history of the country.

In the early 1800s, whole cloth quilts became popular.  These quilts’ beauty was not in the fabric or colors but in the stitching and/or cording work done on them.  Applique became popular in the mid 1700s and peaked in popularity around 1850, but it was only the wealthy that could afford the expensive fabrics that went into these early applique quilts.

 When the Amish settlers started to populate the farmlands of Pennsylvania and the Midwest, they did not quilt and came with the feather beds that they had used in Europe.  Over time, though, they adopted the ways of the earlier settlers around them, developing the distinctive Amish quilt style that we know of today.

Many variations of the quilt were developed during these early times to adapt to the conditions of their lives in early America.  One was the style that I know as a comforter where the layers are tied to keep the layers from shifting or bunching.  Another was a summer quilt which was created without the warm middle material, resulting in a lighter quilt for the warmer days.

Quilt making was taught to the young daughters in early days.  One story tells of a girl creating a baker’s dozen quilt tops for her future days as a wife and mother.  She would piece together 12 everyday quilt tops and one more decorative that would be used for her bridal bed.  Once she became engaged, then the quilt top would be completed for her use in her new home.  Likewise, mothers often created multiple quilts for each of her children to take with them when they left home.

Quilting may well have been a relaxing activity for a pioneer woman, especially when the women of the community or rural area would gather at each other’s home for a quilting bee.  Whether a social event for these early women, or the result of a gathering of the community for a barn building, these times were often the highlight of these women’s challenging life.

With the establishment of slavery also came the development of a unique look.  The skilled quilters among the slaves often spent their days working on quilts for their owners’ household and then would spend their limited free time creating quilts for their family members or their slave community using any fabric scraps they could find.  Often a mismatch of fabrics, colors and shapes, these quilts had a unique beauty of their own that told the story of their struggles.

The art of quilting took a big leap forward in the mid-1800s with the development of the sewing machine.  Though the early machines were hand or foot activated, they eliminated the need to hand stitch a quilt.  As time passed, quilts evolved to become more decorative or colorful, often using all new fabrics of similar weight and feel rather than a hodge-podge of reused materials.  During WWI, women were urged to make quilts to save the blankets for the men fighting over seas.  WWII saw quilting as a way to raise funds for the Red Cross with the creation of signature quilts.  The signature quilt was created by selling community store owners and citizens the opportunity to have their name embroidered on a quilt for a small fee.  The completed quilt would then be raffled off to some lucky winner and the proceeds were used by the Red Cross to support their efforts in the war.

What innovations are there to come?  What are we creating that will become history for our family, for our community, for our craft?  It does make one wonder where we will go from here with this art form that we all enjoy.  Let’s see what story we can make that history will share.

Helpful Resources

International Quilt Study Center Quilt History Timeline Pre-History – 1800; Compiled by Carolyn Ducey, IQSC Curator

And many more not listed…

Barb Bergquist along with husband, Ron, own A Block Away Quilt Shop.  A dedicated quilter with more than 25 years of experience, she is now actively sharing her love of quilting through the work in her shop.

Contact Us:

Phone: (956) 638-1961
Location: A Block Away Quilt Shop
                 2706 N. 10th Street
                 McAllen, TX 78501
Hours: Mon-Sat: 9AM-4PM, Sun: Closed

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