Quilting has a long and storied history stretching back as far as ancient Egypt, piecing together a timeline of humanity from which we draw our crafting skills. While the quilting we know and love today is worlds different from the functional quilting of our past, it still holds a unique place in our hearts and in our history. For generations we’ve warmed ourselves and our families beneath quilts. They’ve been there to protect us, remind us of our past, and comfort us in difficult times.
While it’s not possible to capture the complete history of quilting in one attempt (and we’re by no means experts on the subject!), this guide can serve as a very broad overview of our craft—a guide to remind you that with every stitch you create, you create a stitch within the fabric of time. Many cultures in our world have used quilting as a means to document their history, survive harsh environments, and bring comfort during times of strife. For generations, careful hands have passed down their gifts until they have finally reached us and it is now in our hands to continue the quilting journey. Looking back on our past may be important, but it’s the quilters of today that will keep our craft alive.
Quilting can be traced back to many ancient civilizations within China, North Africa, and the Middle East. An ivory carving depicting the Pharaoh of the Egyptian First Dynasty wearing a quilted mantle, now housed in the British Museum, is recognized as the first known evidence of quilting. During these time periods, the concept of quilting wasn’t all that different than how we see it today. Many original quilted goods were created out of necessity. Many layers “sandwiched” together created a warmer, thicker product that was handy in many different uses. Clothing to both warm and protect the wearer (even to pad the armor of knights!) and bedding was made by quilting different layers of fabric together.
Medieval Europe offers some of the clearest glimpses into the early history of quilting. As with many creative processes, quilting was utilized as a method of storytelling as well as a functional necessity. As cinema has given us the opportunity to visualize a story, early quilts allowed the creator to embellish and decorate with stories from both written and oral traditions. Two of the earliest known decorative quilts are from the 14th century and both capture the legend of Tristan and Isolde. Quilts throughout history have been used and created as both functional vessels of warmth and beautiful works of art.
Quilting Comes to America
Practicality was key for early American settlers. In a new environment, isolated from the known world, quilts found their purpose in the form of warmth. Most of the early American quilts were not focused on aesthetics, but rather were created from the limited resources available. They used whatever materials they had on hand, recycling outgrown and damaged clothing (and at times, even other, older quilts!) into new quilts. These quilts were purely for functionality and keeping warm.
If protection from the elements wasn’t beneficial enough, quilting developed another function in early colonial America—social interaction. As we all know, quilting is no easy task. The laborious process is well-loved by many, but before modern revolutions such as pre-cut materials and sewing machines, quilts had to be made entirely by hand.
The quilting bee, a social gathering where women came together to socialize and quilt, was a way for many early settlers in America to not only continue working on their projects, but interact with their community and have fun while sewing during the long process! For many, quilting was a relaxing activity and something to look forward to, especially when able to gather with their fellow quilters. These social gatherings, along with sewing at home, allowed the opportunity for quilting to be passed on as a generational skill. Mothers would teach daughters the basic stitches and then in turn, would pass those skills on to their children, creating a lifetime of heirloom quilts with nostalgic memories layered within the fabric. Quilting became a popular activity for major life events in which entire quilts were completed within a day due to limited time with neighbors whom early settlers might have only seen a few times a year. The Victoria and Albert museum states, “particularly in north America … there is a tradition of a quilt-making ‘bee’ for a girl about to get married, with the aim of stitching a whole quilt in one day”.
These gatherings and the first boom in quilt popularity gave birth to many of the vintage blocks that we still use and gain inspiration from today. Early American crafters, much like the earliest quilters, told stories with their projects by sewing the world around them. The pinwheel block utilizes motion, demonstrating the prairie winds of which they traveled. Star blocks captured the night sky and the importance of light in a vast, unexplored wilderness. These blocks have been passed down for centuries until they became the staples of quilting that we know and love today.
Today, quilting is more accessible than it ever has been. We live in a world of pre-cut fabrics available at the press of a button and instructional videos that can be watched online from the convenience of our homes. Quilting isn’t entirely a necessity as it once was, we can instead use it as a creative outlet and pastime.
The world of quilting continues to change as the world we live in evolves. Modern quilting utilizing bold color designs and prints, once an impossibility due to limited technology and supplies, has brightened the artform in unimaginable ways. Geometric and fractal quilting are growing in popularity as a new generation of quilters piece their first works, many of which have learned their craft online rather than through the traditional in-person learning process. As the world changes, so does quilting. Regardless of what the quilts of tomorrow look like, we can remember where they came from and keep their memory alive within our patchwork. So pick up an old pattern today and try something new— replace the background with a bold, modern color or add some abstract designs into your block but remember that with every stitch, you’re continuing the timeline of quilt history.