Quilt-Making: An American Tradition

Stroll around any local craft show and you will see homemade quilts to awe and inspire. Bright colors, intricate patterns and pristine craftsmanship will abound, but where did the tradition begin? The picture that pops to mind is a pioneer woman sitting by the fire as she lovingly stiches a beautiful quilt to keep her family warm through the long cold winter. In reality, quilting as we know it today did not take off for the average woman until the mid-1700’s, until then the average housewife was far too busy spinning, weaving and sewing clothing to spare time for artistic endeavors. In its earliest form, “quilt-making” was more likely to take the form of patching holes in and refashioning commercial or woven blankets and would have included combining blankets or using older blankets as filler. These were not lovingly crafted heirlooms to be passed from generation to generation but rather highly functional pieces to keep loved ones warm.

It wasn’t until the mid-1700’s that quilting as we think of it today really became popular. Fabrics now manufactured in America were more affordable allowing time and resources for more artistic endeavors. Quilting became a social opportunity in which many women gathered together for “sewing” or “quilting bees” and the application of many hands to the same project allowed a group to finish multiple projects in one day. Many traditions arose around community quilting including the custom of young girls making a “baker’s dozen” of quilt tops before her coming of age which were to be finished during her engagement and brought into her marriage. In the mid 1800’s the invention of the sewing machine made the quilting process even more efficient and more and more intricate and extravagant quilts were created.

Besides being a social event, quilting also became political. When the United States entered World War I the government encouraged its people to “Make more quilts- Save the blankets for our boys over there.” Communities were able to fundraise and build awareness through their quilt making- the “signature quilt” was especially popular for this. In a signature quilt, business people, store owners, and citizens of a community would pay a small fee to have their names embroidered on quilt blocks. The blocks were sewn together and quilted, and the finished quilt was raffled off with all proceeds going to the charity of choice. These quilts are now fascinating community records.

Whole cloth quilts, broderie perse and medallion quilts were popular styles of quilts made during the early 1800s. The whole cloth quilt, also known as counterpane, is usually made of single pieces of material on the top and back, and the decoration is obtained by means of padded or corded quilting in more or less elaborate design.

The applique quilt, or “laid-on” quilt, usually has a top made of whole cloth with smaller pieces of contrasting fabrics cut into shapes or forms that are applied or stitched down. These quilts were considered more elegant than the humble pieced type. Applique for quilting came into favor around the mid-1700s and reached its climax about 1850. Only the wealthy could afford the expensive imported fabric and had the leisure time for this type of quilt making that displayed the fine needlework of the maker.

The patchwork quilt was a “utility” quilt, in contrast to the applique quilt which was a “best” or show quilt, upon which time and material was lavished. Though there are examples of elaborate patchwork quilts that took enormous amounts of time to make, pieced quilts were generally the everyday bedcover, and designed to be made quickly. Since even small cloth remnants could be used in patchwork quilts, every scrap of fabric and usable portion of worn garments were saved and used in patchwork quilts. Pieced quilts became the most common type of quilt at that time. A variation of the utility quilt was the plain “tufted” quilt that is tied through in enough places to keep the filling from shifting and bunching. While a tufted quilt has no stitching holding the layers together, it does have the typical 3 layers seen in traditional quilts. Another variation of the quilt is the “summer” quilt, which does not have the middle filling, so is useful as a bedcover during the warmer months. The summer quilt does have the traditional stitching holding the 2 layers together.

A particularly popular style of quilt in the early days of quilting (through the early 1800s), was the Medallion quilt, which was made in a style that had actually been brought to America from Europe by the colonists. This type of quilt — a central motif surrounded by multiple borders — offered endless design possibilities for quilters, who could use patchwork, applique, embroidery, either alone or in combination.