Quilting Myths and American Traditions

Flower Vine QuiltMarch 20th is National Quilting Day and a good opportunity to both celebrate the rich American tradition of the quilt as well as lay a myth to rest.

Quilting is the art of stitching two pieces of fabric together, usually sandwiching a layer of batting or wool between them. The stitching keeps the middle layer from shifting. The art is in the intricate designs the stitching is crafted into.

The myth is that quilting originated in America. Patchwork quilting and whole-cloth quilting both date back to ancient Egypt and the Middle East. In addition to use as clothing, Middle Eastern warriors often used quilts under their armor to protect their skin. This practice was adopted by the crusading European knights.

Quilted wall-hangings and bed clothing became popular in Europe as well. This imported process influenced Medieval fashion with 17th century French petticoats that were quilted to be seen.

European immigrants brought quilting with them to America, where the art form continued to flourish with patterns passed back and forth across the Atlantic. Patchwork quilts sometimes display pieces of clothing worn by family members and can be artistic illustrations of a person’s life.

It is a myth that early Americans spent their time quilting. Early American quilts were often whole-piece quilts and were created primarily by upper class women. They were expensive and time-consuming to make. Printed fabrics were imported and a woman would often cut out a design and apply it to a solid backing (broderie perse). When quilts were pieced, they were often done in a medallion style, with many borders added to a central piece.

It wasn’t until 1840 that quilting became a possibility for most Americans. The American textile industry had become robust enough for fabrics to be cheaper and easier to come by. Quilting bees were often an excuse for women to get together and socialize, but no more than three would work at any given time. While quilting frames were too big for many homes to host such gatherings, they were too small for large numbers of people to work at the same time.

West-headed settlers often exchanged remembrance quilts with friends and family just before leaving. While it’s a myth that the underground railroad used quilts as signals and maps, quilts were created and sold for fund-raising events on both sides of the American Civil War. Victorian-era Americans embraced the crazy quilt. For the upper-class, these became an art statement, but for the lower classes, they were a grim necessity. With fabric scarce in the aftermath of the civil war, many women pieced together quilts from any scrap of fabric they could find. It was during this time as well that fewer stitches were taken, or the “quilting” was replaced by ties. As the textile industry recovered and flooded the market with low-quality cottons, “charm quilt” and “postage stamp” quilt patterns tried to make use of as many different fabrics as possible.

In the roaring 20’s Americans became fascinated with their heritage and Colonial America. Magazines and pattern companies capitalized on this desire, but drew from the Victorian era instead of the Colonial which is how the myths surrounding Colonial American quilting got started. During both world wars, woman’s groups would band together and quilt both for fund-raising and to send the products to the front. But quilting as a popular pass-time or as a practical means of creating a bed-covering declined both from a change in home decorating as well as a shift away from sewing clothes at home (making scraps from which to make quilts scarce). Quilting remained a hobby of rural America until the Bicentennial again turned American eyes toward their heritage. It was at this time that Amish quilts grew in popularity.

Quilting remains a favorite pass-time for many American women. Quilts are still created as remembrances, baby shower gifts, or works of art. While quilting didn’t originate in America, it’s yet another example of a technique that we have shaped and that has shaped us.

For a comprehensive history of quilting, visit: womenfolk.com

Star Throw QuiltApothecary Quilt

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