A Brief and Incomplete History of Quilting

Fabric stored and organized for the purpose of quilting.

As we begin to celebrate National Quilting Month, it is important to look back upon our history and appreciate how the art of quilting has evolved throughout our past. Each of us has a special responsibility as a quilter (whether you realize it or not!); we are tasked with keeping an ancient art form alive and well and with every stitch of fabric, we’re sewing the threads of the craft’s future. Whether you learned how to quilt in the traditional way of having the skill passed down from previous generations, or if you’re just finding your way today in a new world of online innovation, you’re now bound within the fabric of your creations. Take some time to celebrate National Quilting Month today and learn a little more about the History of Quilting.

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.

Early Beginnings

Pictorial Quilt, 1795. Linen, multicolored thread, 103 1/4 x 91 in. (262.3 x 231.1 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Dick S. Ramsay Fund, 41.285

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

The Stars and Stripes quilt from the Missouri Star Quilt Company.

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.

Pictorial Quilt, ca. 1840. Cotton, cotton thread, 85 1/2 x 67 3/4 in. (217.2 x 172.1 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Mrs. Franklin Chace, Gavin Ashworth photograph

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.

Modern Quilting

The Sunset Cabin quilt from ModBLOCK Volume 5.

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.

The History of 1930s Fabrics

When engaged in a casual conversation about feedsacks with a non-quilter or someone new to the craft who might not be familiar with antique quilts, the picture that often comes to mind is a bag made of burlap, paper, or heavy canvas that has been filled with animal feed. For the lover of antique quilts and vintage fabric, the vision is quite different. Instead of paper or rough gunny sacks, we think of pretty, soft bags made of dress prints. Over the years, the word feedsack has become an all-inclusive term used for these charming fabric bags and a rich history follows them wherever they are found.

1930s reproduction fabrics

Reproduction fabrics patterned after prints from the 1930s-1950s, recreate the cotton feed sacks in which flour and grain were sold during the Great Depression. Companies realized some people had started recycling the simple gunny sacks to use as clothing, undergarments, and towels since many were struggling to afford these things elsewhere. This led to feed sacks becoming decorated with prints in pretty pastels and playful images so clothes could still be made with some style.

Initially, feedsacks were made of white material and based on barrel sizes. The factory printed the company logo, or barrel stamp, directly on the bag along with directions on how to unlock the stitches that closed the bag. Richard Peek, vice president of the Percy Kent Bag Company, is often credited with the idea of using beautiful dress prints for making bags. The story goes that he had walked into a restaurant and saw chair covers and curtains made from ordinary cotton bags. It occurred to him that if the bags were made using decorative prints, not only could he promote sales of his bags but bring attention to the goods sold in the bags as well.

By 1935, Percy Kent was successfully marketing their new print bags. It was a brilliant tactic. It’s unknown how enthusiastic farmers were about the print bags, but it was easy to see that they were a big hit with the ladies! Women were happy to take charge of choosing the sacks they wanted to use when making clothing for their families. It took about three large bags to make a dress. Many were the disgruntled employees who worked in the feed store when they had to sort through heavy bags to come up with three that matched!

While the Percy Kent Bag Company is often given full credit for coming up with the idea of using dress prints for feedsacks, they weren’t exactly the first to entertain the notion. In 1925, Gingham Girl Flour ran an advertisement touting the high grade of gingham they had used when making their bags. Bemis and Fulton Bag companies both kept samples of prints they had produced during the 20s and 30s as well.

As print bags became the norm and were readily available, women fussed and fumed about the ink that was used to print the labels on the bags. Tips on how to remove the ink appeared in newspapers and magazines. Some advised rubbing lard into the ink and letting it sit overnight. Then they were to scrub the bag on a washboard using lye soap. Others recommended soaking bags in kerosene, then washing them with Fels Naptha soap.

Soon, bag manufacturers began printing their own directions on how to remove the ink directly onto the bag itself. The only problem with that was that often the only ink that didn’t come out, after all the soaking and washing and scrubbing, were the directions on how to remove the ink! After dealing with many complaints, manufacturers began to use paper labels which they pasted onto the bag.

For the bag companies, sacks made from pretty prints may have been a marketing ploy, but for the families trying to survive hard times, the bags were so much more. The fabric meant new clothes for the whole family, curtains for the home, towels for the kitchen, and pillowcases for the bedroom. And, of course, quilts from the scraps that were left after sewing.

For some families, the bags also meant being able to provide gifts for their children. Victor Flour had puppets and dolls printed on the backs of their bags. Sea Island Sugar printed dolls that could be cut out, sewn together, and stuffed. They were careful to let people know that the ink used in the printing process was not poisonous. The drawback for many of the dolls and toys printed on sacks was that the ink wasn’t particularly colorfast, but they made beloved toys.

Written by Edie McGinnis, former Missouri Star pattern writer, and member of the American Quilter’s Society and the Quilters Guild of Greater Kansas City.

What the world was like (1930-1950s):

  • The price of women’s stockings were 89 cents.
  • Scotch tape was invented by Richard Drew at 3M company.
  • American aviator, Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific Ocean attempting to navigate the globe.
  • Time Magazine’s Man of the Year was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
  • Marvel introduces Captain America.
  • The construction and completion of Mount Rushmore.

SHOP 1930s REPRODUCTIONS FABRICS

Here are some of our favorite patterns to make with 30s fabrics:

Relive history through these reproduction fabrics. Find your favorite today!