History of Quilting in America

Quilting is a stitching technique that has been present in human history for quite some time. Through the ages, there is evidence that many cultures developed variations of the quilting technique to create items that would keep them warm and physically protect them. However, quilts have also been used as decorative pieces, many depicting stories related to certain civilizations.

History of Quilting: Long and Rich

What is quilting?

When making a quilt, a quilter stitches two or more layers of fabric together, one on top of the other. This process is unlike regular sewing, where you stitch the fabric’s edges together. Quilting requires multiple pieces of fabric, the most common variation being three because its intended purpose is to create warmer items like blankets.

For example, many bed covers are considered quilts as they also contain padding in between the pieces of fabric. The word “quilt” originates from the Latin word “culcita,” which means bolster or cushion.

Where did quilting originate?

Proof of the existence of quilting has been found in many civilizations around the world through the imagery of quilted items in ancient artifacts. However, with only a few actual quilts having survived the passage of time, it is hard to know for certain where and when exactly quilting first originated.

The Ivory King exhibit from circa 3000 BC in the British Museum depicts an Egyptian pharaoh wearing a seemingly heavy patterned ceremonial robe, which many consider perhaps one of the earliest indications of a quilted workpiece.

Other evidence shows that quilted items or items made with similar techniques to quilting were also present in different countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe. In Europe, quilting is believed to have first started due to the influence that other regions had on western Europeans through trade, as well as through the Crusades sometime around the 12th century. So what is the oldest known quilt that has survived to this day?

One of the oldest surviving quilts is the Tristan quilt in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It is a quilted bedcover from the 14th century that was recovered in Sicily and included 14 scenes depicting the legend of Tristan and Iseult.

quilt sewn from square pieces on sewing machine

American quilts history

The quilting practice was started in America by the already experienced European quilters during the era of colonialism. These European settlers brought along their quilting techniques that slowly expanded throughout the colonies. However, quilting did not become a popular practice right away.

Contrary to the popular belief that lower classes first engaged in quilting out of necessity to create clothing out of scraps, in reality, it was the wealthy settlers that mainly practiced quilting. Most quilts at the time used fabrics that were specifically ordered for quilting and entailed very intricate craftsmanship, which required a lot of time that only women in the upper class had.

Therefore, it would not have been possible for people belonging to lower socioeconomic classes to afford these more expensive materials, which is why quilts were mainly found in wealthier households. Furthermore, because quilting was not particularly accessible to everyone yet, it did not become popular practice until much later.

Of course, this is not to say that women in the lower classes did not quilt with scraps to make clothing, but that practice was not as common in those circles, and it was not viewed primarily as a thrifty alternative for making clothes.

Quilting would not be accessible to all the classes until the middle of the 19th century when fabrics became less rare and expensive. It was then that most families could buy fabric, and more women could start quilting. The invention of the sewing machine around that same time also helped popularize quilting and other forms of sewing to the masses.

In the early 20th century, women’s magazines would frequently feature different quilt pattern styles, and American companies would start taking advantage of the demand by offering new fabrics, quilt styles, and many other related products that they would advertise to the public.

Around that time, a new movement would start that romanticized the perception that quilting was a traditional practice during colonial times, and companies would attempt to capitalize on that as well. During that time, the market for sewing, quilting, and other practices started to develop into what it is today.

However, the demand for quilting did fall out of fashion for some time afterward due to several worldwide phenomena that impacted the market in more ways than one. The first World War, the Great Depression, and World War II would all play a part in the decline of quilting’s popularity.

During the Great Depression, fabrics would become, once again, too expensive for an already struggling household. However, as a practice, it would turn out to continue being quite useful. Women were able to use their quilting abilities to create necessary items out of what they could spare, meaning that they could make clothes by spending very little to none.

When men were drafted during World War II, women had to work outside their households to support their families. Many continued to do so after the end of the war. This resulted in quilting becoming more of a hobby than an actual necessity, as women had less time to spend making quilts.

With the economy revitalized, people continued to not be interested in homemade quilts due to the perception that it was a practice mainly for people that were financially unable to purchase good quality bed covers and had to make them themselves. This stigma prevented quilting from gaining its past popularity but not for too long.

In the mid-1970s, quilts resurfaced thanks to the celebrations of the American Bicentennial, which brought nostalgic feelings for older and traditional practices. An already romanticized practice in the past, quilting quickly became popular again, with quilts now viewed as vintage art pieces.

Many quilts would be exhibited in museums all over North America and get celebrated for their cultural and historical value. Moreover, movements such as the Back-to-the-Land movement, which involved many hippies at the time, looked to the past and embraced earlier ways of living and other practices, which included quilting.

History of Quilting: African-American Quilting

African-American quilters have greatly contributed to the development of quilting in the United States. Many African-American slaves became experts in quilting, creating quilts for both their owners and their own families, as sewing, quilting, and other related practices were among the daily tasks they had to perform. Of course, during this period, quilting was not as common as a practice because of the aforementioned cost attached to it.

However, African American women could acquire the necessary fabrics and gain more experience quilting for their owner’s families because slave owners were generally wealthy, so it was easier for them to get access to good quality fabrics for quilting. Therefore, it is very possible that the few quilts that have survived from that era, located in wealthy households, have been made by African-American quilters.

It is also known that African-American quilters created quilts for their own families as well. Of course, they wouldn’t have access to the same fabrics, so they would use scraps to create quilts for themselves.

As mentioned earlier, this era is not a time when there were a lot of quilters in general, and the scarcity of surviving quilts is indicative of that. This is especially true for African-American quilters, who were also burdened by the extensive labor they were forced to do, resulting in having less time for personal quilting. Consequently, there are even fewer surviving quilts from that era confirmed to be made by African-American quilters.

Interestingly enough, there are quite a few legends about the use of quilts as a form of communication by the Underground Railroad. According to the legends, people would hang certain quilts on safe houses along the railroad to indicate to those escaping whether it was safe for them or not.

These quilts had special coded patterns that acted as guides or warnings for those seeking freedom. However, research experts have indicated that there has been no evidence proving the validity of these claims.

Today, many contemporary African-American quilters make decorative American history quilts that commemorate the black experience, history, and traditions. Modern African-American quilts can tell stories about the past, stories about faith and perseverance, which makes them culturally significant.

History of Quilting: African Quilts

Many believe that African-American quilting goes even further back in time. It is believed that African-American quilting is an extension of much older African weaving traditions that are still present in many African regions. This is based on the presence of certain stylistic elements that exist in both African weaved items and African-American quilts.

For example, the traditional African Kente cloth bears some resemblance to the very few surviving African-American quilts in regards to the patterns, colors, etc. The theory is that African-American slaves were inspired by their African culture and embedded many of their cultural traits in the quilts.

This idea gets further support from the fact that many other items created by African-American slaves at the time share a strong resemblance with traditional items common in many African cultures.

Of course, the challenge is that due to the general scarcity of quilts from that period, and especially that of African-American quilts, it is quite challenging to study this theory further.

close up of woman hand sewing quilt

History of Quilting: Quilt Patterns

During the first few decades that quilting began in America, many very creative quilt patterns were created. These designs often featured different elements that became popular later on. What women of the time would often do was share their designs and quilt patterns with some of their friends and relatives in the same area or other regions.

This resulted in several quilt patterns becoming popularized among many. Their creators would also attempt to give them imaginative names, with some of them fading as the patterns were passed to more women, while others remain to this day. Of course, names would not always remain the same as some quilters would use different names for the same pattern, while others would use the same name for very different patterns.

Regardless, what was born out of the custom of sharing quilt patterns was that many of them became more defined through the years, now recognized as distinctive designs that many want to recreate.

Moreover, it should be noted that quilt making differs from region to region, influenced by the local culture and, most importantly, the quilters themselves, leading to a wide variety of quilt patterns today. Let’s take a look at different quilt patterns and their individual histories.

History of Quilting: Ocean Waves Quilts

It is believed that the ocean waves quilt pattern goes back to the 19th century. Not much is known about how and when it became popular, but many believe it was inspired by the New England coastline, a northeastern region of the United States, hence the name.

This American quilt pattern uses several 1/2 square triangles to create the motif of the waves. Interestingly enough, many quilters used different techniques to make this quilt, resulting in many different variations based on the number and size of the triangles used. Moreover, many quilters tend to use strongly contrasting colors to create a unique effect when combined with distinctive triangles.

Yo-Yo quilts

When looking at the history of quilting, the yo-yo quilt pattern is unique because it is not like any other traditional quilt patterns. For instance, yo-yo quilts do not require quilting as they have no middle layer for batting or fabric backing. The quilt is made up of small rosettes, round pieces of fabric sewn together into rows. However, sometimes the rosettes are attached to a large piece of fabric, which can be used as the fabric backing.

Depending on the quilt maker’s preference, yo-yo quilts can have larger gaps between the rosettes, or they can be connected by being sewn together, enlarging the size of the rosettes. Moreover, the rosettes are made mainly from scraps, but the way they are sewn gives a 3-dimensional effect to the quilt. Therefore, it is quite common to be used as a more decorative quilt.

The yo-yo quilt history appears to go back to the 1920s, and they continued to be popular until around the 1940s. It rose in popularity during the Great Depression since it was relatively cheap to make quilts thanks to the fact that it mainly required scraps from any fabric to make one such quilt. However, it is not known where or when it originated.

Tree of Life quilts

No history of quilting would be complete without discussion of a very popular quilt pattern: the tree of life. This is due to the spiritual and religious elements that such imagery comes with. In most contexts, the three of life symbolize the connection between the mortal plane and life after death. There are several versions of this concept in many different religions, and for many of them, the tree is sacred.

Of course, many other people like this quilt pattern due to the beautiful imagery. In many versions of this quilt pattern, the tree is depicted in the center with flowers and birds surrounding it. However, some other popular variations feature a triangular version of the tree, specifically several triangular trees that make up the pattern.

The tree of life quilt pattern history is believed to have begun sometime around the 19th century, much like a lot of other quilt patterns. However, the triangular tree design did not surface until sometime later.

Baptist Fan quilts

Not much is known about the Baptist fan quilting pattern history. It is believed the pattern started in the late 19th century or early 20th century, and their name is perhaps connected to the Baptist church. The “fan” in its name is often assumed to come from the fact that the quilt pattern has a cyclical design, resembling a hand fan that people used in some churches to cool off during the congregation.

This quilt pattern can be seen today in various quilts, and there have been several variations of it, as it is a very easy quilt style to use.

History of Quilting: Lady of the Lake Quilts

This quilt pattern uses mainly half-squares. The pattern is quite old and can be easily found in many quilts today as it is very distinctive.

Not much is known about the Lady of the Lake quilt pattern history, but it is believed that, unlike other quilt patterns, this one has not been known by many other names. In regards to its name, the obvious connection is that of the mythological character of the same name from the Arthurian legend. Some also believe that it might have taken its name from Sir Walter Scott’s poem from the early 19th century, also named after the Arthurian legend.

Sunbonnet Sue quilts

The Sunbonnet Sue quilt pattern history is an interesting case as it did not originate as a quilt. Originally an illustrated character created by artist Bertha Corbett Melcher, Sunbonnet Sue was made after the artist was challenged to draw a character that could convey emotion to the audience without depicting the character’s face.

First appearing in the book “The Sunbonnet Babies” in the early 20th century, Sunbonnet Sue quickly rose to fame among many people, appearing in illustrated books and many other items.

Not long after she became popular, in 1910, Sunbonnet Sue was also transferred to quilts, becoming a now equally popular quilt pattern. The character reached peak popularity during the Great Depression but soon after, people’s interest started declining.

Drunkard’s Path quilts

The Drunkard’s Path quilt pattern history has its roots in the late 19th century, but the theory is that it was popularized during the Prohibition Era (1920-1933) because it is believed it was used a lot by the members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which supported the banning of alcohol in the country, hence the name. One of the ways they raised funds for their endeavors was to create and sell these quilts.

The same theory indicates that the frequent use of the blue and white colors in these quilts symbolize the purity of water in contrast with the bad influence of alcohol.

History of Quilting: Crazy Quilts

Crazy quilts are perhaps one of the oldest quilting patterns. However, it is not considered a pattern per se since there is not a specific technique involved in making a crazy quilt. Crazy quilts are famous for their asymmetrical design and colorful but contrasting patchwork.

The history of the crazy quilts has a lot of gaps, and a certain date for its creation has not been confirmed yet. However, it is known that crazy quilts rose significantly in popularity during the Victorian Era (1837-1901).

Other quilt patterns

The corn and beans quilt pattern is also a very old pattern, and it represents the agricultural element that was prevalent in the country for a very long time. Most people lived on farms until the 18th century, so agricultural elements were very common to be featured in any folk art.

The bow tie quilt pattern history is one with a lot of contradictions. Many believed that this quilt pattern was popular with African-American slaves as it has been theorized that it was used by the Underground Railroad as some form of communication to alert slaves escaping the North. The theory entails that this quilt pattern warned slaves to disguise themselves to avoid detection. However, as mentioned earlier, these theories have not been proven to this day.

The carpenter’s wheel quilt block history is also connected to the same theories about their use by the Underground Railroad. These quilts also have a religious connotation as it is believed that the carpenter symbolizes Jesus Christ.

The grandmother's flower garden quilt history goes back to England sometime around the 1700s. It is believed that English immigrants brought this quilt pattern over to America.

History of Quilting: Barn Quilts

barn quilts windmill

Even those only slightly familiar with the history of quilting have likely heard of barn quilts. This type of quilt is perhaps one of the most unique quilts because it is not made through quilting. A barn quilt is a large piece of wood painted with a specific design that resembles traditional quilt patterns. Therefore, they can depict many different designs, and they come in various shapes (squares, circles, triangles, and rectangles) and sizes.

Barn quilts are considered a type of folk art and are frequently used to decorate barns all across the rural areas of the United States. For that reason, they can usually be seen on the exterior of a barn. Barn quilts are visually appealing not just to the people who own the barn but also to travelers who drive by the area.

The Barn quilt painting history can be traced back to the 17th century with another very similar type of folk art called hex signs. Hex signs originated in Pennsylvania by European settlers in the area that migrated from regions in Western Europe around countries such as France, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, and others.

Hex signs are also made out of wood, painted with different colors, and depicting various patterns, specifically for decorative purposes for barns. However, they are frequently seen to be more circular. Some people assign religious or spiritual significance to the hex signs as well, such as believing that they can bring good luck to the family.

However, the more contemporary barn quilt origin is attributed to Ohio woman Donna Sue Groves, who is credited as being responsible for the revival of this type of folk art. To honor her quilter mother, Groves decided to create a painted quilt and hang it in her barn on her tobacco farm.

From then on, she created a trend that spread within her community. Other locals joined Groves to create more barn quilts and hang them on barns around the area, creating a “Barn Quilt Trail” that travelers can visit. The barn quilt trend also spread over rural America and even Canada, with many communities getting organized and creating their own local barn quilt trails.