An old enduring craft is quilting. It is the process of stitching together two layers of fabric that is filled with a soft textile, usually cotton. In a sense, quilting is kind of like making a “textile sandwich”. Quilts are traditionally used as bed coverings because of their warmth and comfort, but they are also used in clothing, upholstery and home decorations.
The Ancient History of Quilting
This is an ageless craft that originated in ancient times. The Chinese, Russians and Native Americans of Mesoamerica often wore three-layered garments for warmth and protection. Templar Knights in the Holy Land during the First and Second Crusade wore quilted garments and decorated their armor with this sewing technique that they learned from their enemies, the Muslim Saracen soldiers, who used quilting as an alternate means of protection when metal for armor was in short supply. The Crusaders took the art back to Europe where it was used for sleepwear and undergarments in the cold winters.
Written records and designs of the quilting craft as it was known in the 12th century have survived, but the actual garments were made of perishable textiles and very few early specimens have survived. The earliest example found is from the 15th century and was constructed of coarse linen, decorated with embroidery. It was from this era that the still-used “quilting stitch” was derived. The earliest intact bed covering is from the English 17th century; the Levens Hall specimen is made of imported Indian chintzes. This specimen is of high quality and design, indicating that it was not the first of its type but rather an example of the sewing craft of the era.
Quilting Comes to America
The first specimens were brought to America by Dutch and English colonists. These were examples of patchwork quilting, the craft that achieved the highest artistic development in America. Sewing materials were scarce, but a need for artistic expression drove pioneer women to create intricate geometrical designs that were signed and dated by the maker(s). By 1880, quilting had become an essential staple of local fairs and competitions.
In the 20th century, sewing and quilting machines brought a decline in this ancient craft; inexpensive, mass-produced garments and bed coverings took the place of the “quilting bees” so beloved of early women colonists and pioneers. However, in the 1960s the craft re-emerged, especially in the southern United States. The art was passed down through the generations, and by the mid 1980s quilting had once again become the most popular form of needlework in the country.