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From Armor to Abstract Art

A History of Quilting

Quilts have long been a part of American history, used by women of all economic statuses to express themselves creatively in a purposeful way. Quilts serve as gifts, heirlooms, home décor, and even symbols for cultures around the world. Trends in quilting have been influenced by material availability, political happenings, and inventions of new techniques and tools.

Quilting not only has hundreds of how-to books, but multitudes of history books and even novels based around the hobby. Some of these stories have even been turned into musicals and movies. But before the United States claimed quilting as its own popular pastime, quilting could be found as early as ancient times in places like Egypt and China. Here is how this functional art traveled from North Africa to the New World and beyond.


The word "quilt" is most likely taken from the Old French cuilte, coilte, or coute, which is thought to be derived from the Latin culcita or culcitra, meaning a stuffed mattress or cushion (Shaw). Quilting is defined as holding two or more layers together, whether with stitching, ties, or rivets. Most quilts consist of three layers; a decorated top layer of fabric, middle layer of padding, and a plain bottom layer of fabric (Kooler).

Clothed and Armored: Ancient Civilizations

Quilted Armor Padding Quilted armor served as extra protection against wounds and rubbing from metal armor Quilting is thought to have been first used in ancient civilizations for clothing, armor, shoes, bed covers, and insulation. Scientists believe the first evidence of quilting can be found in a statue from the First Dynasty in Ancient Egypt, about 1300 BC. The statue is a carved ivory Pharaoh figure that appears to be wearing a padded robe. The tomb of Queen Esi-Mem Kev, from 980 BC, held a quilted gazelle leather canopy with colorful appliques in the shape of scarabs, ducks, gazelles, flowers, and snakes on a white gazelle-leather backing.

Besides Egypt, ancient quilting examples have also been found elsewhere in the world. For example, in the tomb for a wife of Marquis of Tai in Hunan Province, China, perfectly preserved quilted silk jackets with silk floss padding were found, dating from 193 to 141 BC (ibid). The oldest extant example of quilting comes from a Siberian cave dating back to the 1st century BC, in the form of a funerary rug.

Quilting is thought to have passed from Egypt to Europe during the Crusades (Shaw). In the 1100s AD, ladies of the Middle Ages in Europe quilted cloaks and gowns composed of layers of silk stuffed with expensive furs. Men wore protective quilted leather or coarse cloths in battle, which provided added protection from arrows, and was later used as padding against heavy armor that could rub sores (Kooler).

Europe to the New World: 1400s–1700s

Tristan and Isolde The oldest extant European quilt is the Tristan Quilt, depicting scenes from Tristan and Isolde The oldest extant European quilt is a Sicilian linen wall hanging from AD 1400. Many castles and manors of the time used heavy tapestries to insulate the walls of the home―but for bed chambers, the heavy tapestries were often swapped out for lighter quilts.

Quilts became especially popular with those who had wealth, being used as wall coverings for insulation, bed hangings and, eventually, bed covers. Quilts of expensive materials were especially coveted. In 1540, Henry VIII presented his fifth wife, Katherine Howard, with 23 silk quilts.

Use of quilted clothing as armor also expanded into Medieval times, with knights wearing padded bases that were kilt-like quilted garments worn over armor in the 16th century to protect a knight's posterior (ibid). Quilted waistcoats and baby bonnets were also popular with wealthy aristocrats in the 17th century, and ladies of the time wore quilted petticoats. These petticoats became so elaborate in material and design that by 1750, skirts were purposely raised to show off the quilted petticoats underneath. (Gordon).

Another trend in quilts that occurred in 16th-century England was whole cloth and appliqued quilts, which most resemble the quilts we are familiar with today. These are the quilts that colonists traveling to America at the beginning of the 17th century would bring with them to the New World (Aldrich).

America's Love Affair with Quilting Begins: 17th Century–1840s

At first, quilting was a luxury not practiced by many of the colonists in America. Britain employed restrictions on cloth, such as outlawing spinning wheels and looms in the American colonies to keep them reliant on textiles from England (Gordon). What really opened up quilting in the New World was the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793. By 1840, New England had more than 700 cotton mills.

Cottin Gin Example The invention of the cotton gin helped make cotton more affordable in America for quilting and other purposes This made cotton much more affordable and attainable to almost anyone, propelling quilt making to become one of the most defining occupations and creative outlets of American women. In an effort to further define themselves from Britain after the Revolutionary War, American quilters created a new quilting technique using smaller blocks joined together instead of working around a central pattern. This ability to create new designs and methods and the desire to use American-made fabrics and threads is one of the reasons quilting is often thought of as an American practice (Shaw).

Quilting Blocks and Bees: 1840s–1860s

Baltimore Album Pattern Album quilts are often thought of as quintessentially American The new block piece style made quilting a more space-conscious activity and also allowed multiple women to work on different pieces of the quilt at the same time. It also allowed for the creation of popular styles like the Baltimore Album Quilt, a pattern particularly famous in the 1840s and 50s. The pattern used very intricate applique work and embroidery and is often considered the pinnacle of American quilt-making techniques.

Quilting blocks also enabled the sharing of patterns with fellow quilters. To share patterns and techniques they had learned, ladies would hold quilting bees, where a woman would bring a quilt top that she had created and together she and her friends would stitch or tie the tops to the backings. Like many bees of the time (such as barn raising, wood chopping, and corn husking bees), quilting bees would involve games, food, music, or dancing with friends and family, men and women either before, during, or after the work.

The invention of the sewing machine in the 1840s also had an effect on quilting. While many women still stuck to handmade quilts, the ability to use sewing machines to make and mend clothing and other sewn items freed up more time to spend on quilts. Creating quilts by hand remained popular until the 20th century.

Quilting has often been largely affected by familiar surroundings, animals, and political happenings. Many pattern names reflected these influences―and while they began as simple names like Diagonal or Diamond, they would become more creative over time. Some examples include Drunkard's Path, ShooFly, Pass in the Corner, Broken Windows, Dog's Tooth, Hearts and Gizzards, Duck's Foot in the Mud, and Wild Goose Chase (ibid).

Civil Wars and Crazy Quilts: 1860s–1900s

African American slaves also had a large effect on quilting designs in America. Many slaves performed the quilting for the household they served, while others joined their mistresses in quilting projects. It is speculated that geometric style quilts are influenced by African American traditional patterns (Kooler). A common lore is that quilts were used before the Civil War for the Underground Railroad. The story goes that when quilts were placed outside to air out, certain patterns were used to relay messages, such as to begin packing for escape, or would direct escapees to safety. This theory, however, has never been proven (Shaw).

One event that had a great effect on quilting in the 1860s was the American Civil War. Women from both the North and the South created quilts reflecting the division and political themes at the time of the war. Quilts were also used as gifts for soldiers or as items to sell at fundraisers to raise money for the soldiers. As many as 250,000 quilts may have been made during the Civil War years alone.

Crazy Quilt Pattern Crazy quilts were most often made for decoration rather than practical use The Victorian era, from 1837 to just after the turn of the 20th century, spurred a movement in quilting that would put an emphasis on quilts as decoration for the home. Quilts were displayed in parlors, used as throws, hung as wall décor, and even draped across tables. Crazy quilts―which were quilts that comprised a number of fine fabrics like silks, taffetas, satins, and velvets―were pieced together haphazardly with elaborate stitching. Crazy quilts usually did not contain a padding, only consisting of a front and back, and would often feature embellishment with additional materials like ribbon, lace, embroidered flowers, paints, beads, hankies, and even gold or silver (ibid).

Spreading Quilting to Others: 1820s–20th Century

In the 1820s, missionaries, traders, government agents, and settlers from the original colonies began introducing quilting to Native Americans both in the mainland and in Hawaii. In Hawaii, wives of missionaries set up sewing classes for natives, which often included quilting. Hometown churches would also send boxes of fabrics, clothing, and quilts to Hawaii and other U.S. Native Americans into the 20th century.

In Hawaii, quilt making became a popular practice. A lau in Hawaii is a basic design pattern. A quilt maker owns the right to their pattern unless they give away or sell the quilt, and then the pattern belongs to the owner. If someone wants to use the lau in their own quilt, they must ask the owner for permission. Another tradition in Hawaii surrounding quilts is that once finished, a quilt is instilled in a person's mana, or their spirit.

Native American tribes on the mainland were also taught quilting techniques by missionaries, as well as receiving an introduction to quilting through trade. Quilts grew to be important in many of these tribes, often worn as shawls and used as bed covers, window and door coverings, and ground covering.

Quilts have also made their way into traditional Native ceremonies, such as baby-naming ceremonies, funeral services, wedding celebrations, graduations, and more. In the 20th century, the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the U.S. government began issuing quilt-making instruction books and sponsoring exhibits of catalogs on quilt making in Native communities (MacDowell).

Amish Dolls and Quilts Amish quilts were traditionally dark, solid colored cloth with elaborate embroidery Natives were not the only cultures affected by quilting. The Amish arrived in North America in 1683, but they refrained from the "English" practice of quilting until the 1800s, with the oldest surviving Amish quilts being from the 1860s and 70s (Shaw). Amish quilts are distinct in style, usually being large, geometric patterns of solid colors and with no appliques. While the quilts are simple in construction, the embroidery and stitching is very detailed and intricate. These quilts were viewed as a way for Amish women to express themselves creatively in a rather subdued culture, as well as providing a means of income (Koolish).

Quilting Dies Down: 1900s–1960s

1915 Ladies Home Journal Marie Webster publishing her quilting patterns in Ladies' Home Journal spurred newspapers accross the country to offer free patterns In 1915, Marie Webster published Quilts: Their Story and How to Make Them, the first-ever book about American quilts. Webster's sale of patterns, kits, and finished quilts through the Practical Patchwork Company, as well as her features in Ladies' Home Journal, helped draw quilters away from Victorian crazy quilts and toward a high-style, antebellum, appliqued quilt style. These quilts had a more traditional, clean design. She was also the first designer to offer her patterns and kits to the public, which spurred more than 400 newspapers to follow suit by offering patterns to their readers.

In the 1920s and 30s, as America neared and entered the Great Depression, quilts of fancier textiles were harder to afford. Instead, many women made patchwork quilts composed of used clothes, linens, or worn-out quilts. One popular trend was to create quilts from cotton sacks that household items like animal feed or sugar came in. At first, these were plain white sacks that the women would bleach or dye to get rid of the company's name―but then the companies realized the marketing potential and began selling their goods in colorful and printed sacks (Gordon).

In 1933, the World's Fair was held in Chicago, and Sears, Roebuck & Co. sponsored a national quilt contest for the fair. The Century of Progress Quilt Contest offered $7500 in prizes, with a grand prize of $1200. The competition had 25,000 entries, succeeding in being the largest quilt competition ever (Shaw).

As America entered into World War II in the 1940s, women had less time for quilting owing to the need to fill in for men in the workforce. Quilting still existed, but the popularity of the hobby definitely died down. After the war, many women chose to purchase their bed covers rather than make them themselves.

A Revival in Interest: 1960s–Present

The 1960s saw a revival in people being interested in quilting, with both women and men getting involved in the hobby. These quilters brought new techniques into the practice, such as graphic-style quilts and appliques that were arranged to look like paintings.

American Quilt Shop Quilt shops are still popular today, offering fabrics, patterns, threads, batting, and other quilting materials As the 1976 bicentennial approached, interest in quilting and its role in American history grew even more. Quilt shops began popping up, offering fabrics, threads, sewing machines, patterns, and more specifically for quilting. In 1974, the International Quilt Festival in Houston, TX, began holding yearly exhibitions, with vendors and how-to classes. This spurred other shows and the creation of the International Quilt Market, the first quilting tradeshow (ibid).

In 1979, the Quilter's Hall of Fame was created by the Continental Quilting Congress, which honored those who were dedicated to preserving the art of quilting or promoted the art to the public. Honorees include quilters, writers, historians, and anyone else who contributes to the quilting community. In 1980, the American Quilt Study Group was created by Sally Garoutte as the first organization in the world devoted to the study of quilting and quilting history (Waldvogel).

The 70s and 80s also saw new technologies and tools for quilting, and the 80s and 90s brought more and better choices in fabrics, which would also spur the new quilting movement. A trend in fine art quilts developed, with explorations in new media such as beads, paint, glass, leather, felt, ribbons, yarn, Mylar, and copper―as well as the odder choices of teabags, eggshells, banana peels, coffee grinds, and toys (Shaw).

Conclusion: Quilting Today

Now, quilting reaches millions of people in the U.S. alone and millions more around the world. Hundreds of how-to books and journals exist to give instructions and patterns to quilters. The Internet has also helped, with social media pages, blogs, and websites offering patterns and instructions to the world. While quilting has come a long way from the early days of Egyptian clothing and Roman soldier's padding, the practice is still ever-changing and making memories, whether as a traditional heirloom quilt or a fine art piece in a museum.

-- Posted December 18, 2015


 Aldrich, Margret. 2001. This Old Quilt. McGregor, MN: Voyageur Press.

 Gordon, Maggi McCormick. 2007. American Folk Art Quilts. North Pomfret, VT: Trafalgar Square Books.

 Kooler, Donna. 2005. Donna Kooler’s Encyclopedia of Quilting. Little Rock, AR: Leisure Arts.

 Koolish, Lynn. 2013. Amish Quilts: The Adventure Continues. Lafayette, CA: C & T Publishing.

 MacDowell, Marsha L. and C. Kurt Dewhurst. 1997. To Honor and Comfort: Native Quilting Traditions. Hong Kong: Museum of New Mexico Press.

 Shaw, Robert. 2009. American Quilts: The Democratic Art, 1780–2007. New York, NY: Sterling Publishing.

 Waldvogel, Merikay, Rosalind Webster Perry, and Marian Ann J. Montgomery. 2011. The Quilters Hall of Fame: 42 Masters Who Have Shaped Our Art. Minneapolis, MN: Voyageur Press.