A History of Quilting

The exact origin of quilting is vague and indistinct. The basic construction of using layers of material with or without padding between them has been a form of protection and insulation for the human body and a covering of protection for both beds and floors for thousands of years.

According to McCall’s Quilt Encyclopedia, the oldest example known to exist is a carpet found in a tomb which was probably made during the first century B.C. The quilt pattern of circles, spirals and scrolls was very similar to familiar types of patterns still used today.

In the early Middle Ages, the armies of William the Conqueror and the Crusaders wore a body armour of two layers of heavy fabric quilted with a layer of soft padding between them. This quilted armour led to the use of quilted bed covers and this can be traced back to the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries. In the 14th century, a drastic climate change in Europe resulted in extremely cold winters and so quilted bedding became a necessity. The first quilting frames were invented. Padding material used at this time included moss, feathers, grass and lambs’ wool. Quilted clothing began to appear in the 15th century.

At first, quilting was done in straight lines with strong thread. As more clothing and bed covering began to be made, decorative stitched designs were introduced. By the end of the 14th century, this had become a common practice.

In Great Britain and Holland, quilting developed into a serious business which was kin to the cottage industry. Quilts became more intricate and these prized possessions were passed down from generations to generations. Because quilts became so important, a kind of mystique grew up around them. Girls started quilting at a young age and often spent major portions of their time at a quilting frame. Each young woman would have several intricate quilts in her “hope closet.” When she became engaged, her Bridal Quilt was begun. This was made by her friends and relatives and would be the most elaborate quilt in her collection.

As was common in the days of early settlers, the quilting custom was brought to the New World. They could not bring much furniture, but quilts were packed in anticipation of the cold winters. Most settlers were extremely poor and so everything was repaired. This included patching the quilts and soon the many repairs to a solid colour with its many patches looked more like a patchwork. You guessed it! Necessity – the mother of invention – led to making beautiful quilts from tiny pieces of material, thus the patchwork patterns of the 18th and 19th centuries were the order of the day.

As more and more settlers arrived, commerce between England and Canada also improved. Imported fabrics became available and so the housewife began to make quilts not from a solid piece of material but began to use other remnants from other sewing projects. The quilt-maker began to aspire to new designs and attractive colour combinations. Many of the quilts became a kind of family chronicle as these hard-working women used patches from well-worn fabric.

The custom of friends and relatives gathering together to make a Bridal Quilt soon became a “Quilting Bee” in the colonies. This was the major social event in the life of a small community.

As textile industries began to evolve, long bolts of cloth were purchased in a wide selection of colours at a lower price than the imported materials. Appliqué work became popular about this time, thus the practice of applying decorative pieces of fabric over another gave new ideas for quilt-makers. At first it was considered an extravagant waste of fabric by many still thrifty settlers, however, appliqué gained in popularity. These appliquéd quilts were kept for best and were just brought out for display or used on special occasions.

As fabric manufactured by machine became widely available, quilt-making became less popular. Except for a few brief periods of popularity, quilt-making was largely forgotten until the 1960s. Since then there has been a revival with many quilting classes and quilting clubs being formed. However, today the material and patterns are very different with colour co-ordination and fabric bought especially for use in a particular quilt. Quilt shows are held in various locations such as church halls, fairs, and restaurants. Quilts sell for a variety of prices. An authentic heirloom quilt MUST have all hand work done on it! Just as soon as you do any machine quilting, the quilt is immediately devalued.