Friday, December 01, 2006


The Origin of Quilts

Don't the children in the picture above look like they're having fun? :) If you are in one of the areas in the U.S. and Canada that's been hit by a winter storm today, I hope your family is snug, safe, warm, and enjoying the snow.

Even here in Tennessee, we're having a cold snap, too, though we can hardly complain compared to what others are experiencing. Yesterday and the day before, we were enjoying temps in the mid 70's. Right now, it's a chilly 37.

So, what a great day to snuggle up with a quilt! In keeping with that thought, I decided to do some research about how quilts began. Even if you're reading this in semi-tropical warmth or you're basking in down-under's summer, I hope you will enjoy reading about it along with those of us who are having to work at staying toasty.

We can be certain that quilting dates at least back to the days when Latin was still a viable language. We can trace our modern English word "quilt" back through the middle English "quilte" to the Latin word culcita. Culcita means matress. Since our matresses have quilted tops today, I suspect that the thinner mattresses used by Latin speaking peoples were also quilted.

Though the word "quilt" dates back to Latin times, the concept may have originated even earlier. If you define quilting as stitching through padding between two layers of cloth, one of the most ancient examples dates from 3400 BC. There is a statue from that time of an Egyptian king who appears to have modeled while wearing a quilted mantle.

From ancient times, quilting appears to have been used in the construction of clothing, shoes, and bed coverings. Most ancient examples of quilting have long since perished, but we know of their existance through ancient art and books. According to the International Quilt Study Center, the most ancient piece of quilting that remains intact is a linen carpet found in a Mongolian tomb. It dates back to sometime between the 1st century BC and 2nd century AD, and it is now housed in Russia.

As far as clothing goes, soldiers from various periods of history have worn quilted garments for warmth. These garments also provided some protection for the soldier. Perhaps, they weren't as effective as metal armor, but they did allow the soldiers more freedom of movement than heavy armor did. When armor fell by the wayside, quilted uniforms became even more important for a time.

In 15th century Europe, women wore quilted pettiocoats to ward off the cold. This was such a frequent practice, that petticoats were often referred to as "quilts" in England. It is sometimes difficult for historians to distinguish if the word refers to a petticoat or a coverlet when reading certain historical documents. In some time periods, some caps and some doll clothes were also quilted.

When it comes to shoes, archeologists discovered a quilted slipper that was patched with leather. It dates from the 8th to 9th century AD. It was found on the silk trading route somewhere near the Chinese-Russian border.

Though bed quilts are mentioned earlier in history, the oldest surviving ones we have are Chinese silk quilts dating back to about 700 BC. The earliest surviving European quilts are three trapunto quilts that were made in Sicily around 1395. One is owned by a private collector, but the other two are on public display. You can see one at the Victoria and Albert museum in the UK and the other can be viewed in Bargello, France.

As you can tell from the examples already mentioned, quilting seems to transcened many cultures. In 1516, a Portuguese traveler to India described the gorgeous quilted bed coverings, bed canopies, and quilted clothing he saw there. There are also surviving quilted costumes from the Ottoman Empire.

While we often think of quilting as being a folk art, some historians think that there was a time when only the wealthy could afford quilted items. Expensive garments and bed clothes were investment pieces of sorts, and even the wealthy would repair damage with a patch them to make items last longer. During the Dark and Middle ages, people kept household inventories of their precious clothing, bedding, and linens. Historians have learned a lot about European quilts from reading these household inventories.

Supposedly, records show that Hentry VIII of England gave his fifth bride, Catherine Howard, two dozen gold and silver quilts from the royal inventory. He meant this as a way to bestow his royal favor upon her. Wouldn't you love to recieve two dozen exquistiely sewn gold and silver quilts? But, considering the unlucky fate of Henry's brides, Catherine would have been better off without the king or his quilts!

Many early bedding quilts were whole cloth quilts. I have read conflicting reports about whether patchwork or pieced quilting was known before the 1800's or it if dates back to a much earlier time. Even today, Provence, Wales, and certain parts of India are still known for their lovely whole-cloth quilts.

There's no doubt that quilting in the U.S. reached a heyday during the 1800's. Blocked quilts came into their own about the 1840's.

Technology had a hand in making quilting such a popular nineteenth-century American pastime. Factories churned out pre-woven fabrics. Also, the sewing machine was invented and became popular over the span of a few decades. This had two effects: 1) Women were freed from weaving and spinning and could quickly machine stitch pre-made fabric into garments. This immendsly reduced the amount of time they needed in order to make all of the necessary clothing and fabric household items for their families. Thus, they could afford to spend more time on decorative projects, such as making pretty quilts. 2) Woven fabrics and sewing machine made the process of quilting, itself, go faster. So, women were eager to take up quilting as a craft. Of course, we remember the famous quilting bees, which served as a social outlet for women of the day.

Just preceeding and during the Civil War, women on both sides quilted to raise money for their side's cause. Women with Abolitionist sympathies made beautiful quilts to be auctioned at fairs. Sometimes, they put anti-slavery sentiments or poetry on them.

Confederate women rose to the call for money to buy gun boats by auctioning their lovely quilts. These earned the nickname "gun boat quilts".

During the war, the demand for warm bedding for both Union and Confederate soldiers was immense. Women on both sides rose to the call to meet his need. In the north, women either made new quilts or cut up existing bed coverings for quilt material. Since soldiers slept on narrow cots, women could get enough material out of a bed-sized covering from their linen closet to make two or three quilts.

As the war dragged on, Southern women had a harder time of it. In antebellum times, cotton was grown in the South but it was turned into material in the North. When the war came, the South was cut off from receiving fabric supplies from the North. Blockade runners brought in some cloth from other places. But, in the main, Southern women were hard put to find material for clothing, much less bedding. They had to revert back to spinning and weaving in order to produce fabric, which was a slow process. And, in many cases, the fighting destroyed the raw materials they needed to produce cloth, leaving Southern women with few options. Even so, Confederate women continued as best they could to sew bandages, uniforms, and quilts for their soldiers and clothing for their families.

Isn't it fascinating to think that quilting is a thread (pardon the unintentional pun) that runs back through time. Can't you picture women of yesterday humming as they lovingly fashioned quilted garments and bedding for their loved ones? Knowing that they enjoyed creating beautiful and useful quilts just as we do brings history a bit closer, don't you think?

Enjoy!
Elizabeth



7 comments:

Mandy Grace said...

Thank you for commenting on my blog! It always makes me happy when new people find it. :-) And that is a lot of interesting info on quilts! I've made quilted purses and small things like that, but I haven't tried making a big quilt yet. Hopefully one day soon I will.

Elizabeth said...

Hi Mandy Grace,

It's good to see you at the Merry Rose, too.

I've only quilted a table topper, but I'm itching to try a bigger project myself.

Mrs. U said...

Wow, Elizabeth!!! GREAT information about quilts!!!

I just LOVE quilts!! My favorite is one my grandma made for me when I was very small. Each night when it's cold outside and I stretch it out across my bed, I wonder if it ever occurred to my grandma that her quilt would be warming my beloved one day as well as me.

What a blessing!!

His,
Mrs. U

Elizabeth said...

Your grandma's quilt sounds so special, Mrs. U.

Amy said...

Hi Elizabeth - thanks for stopping by my blog today :)

I had no idea quilt history went back so far, or through so many different cultures. "Trapunto" is on my "learn to do someday" list.

I dream of finding some old feedsack prints to use in my projects someday :)

My daughter is sleeping tonight under a quilt that was completely handsewn by her great-grandmother.

Elizabeth said...

Mrs. U, how wonderful to have a quilt from your grandma! Maybe, she dreamed that one day a grandchild and spouse would be warmed by it.

I have a quilt that an elderly relative made upon her graduation from high school. She is 93 this year. Unfortunately, the material is disintigrating. I also have quilts from my mother and mother-in-law, which I treasure.

Elizabeth said...

Amy, I had no idea quilt history went back so far, either. It's interesting to think of all of the generations of women who have kept their loved ones warm with quilting.

Family quilts are so special.