Quick Quilt History

Quilting isn’t just patchwork–that’s a common misconception.  Patchwork is the sewing of small pieces of fabric into patterns; lots of patchwork pieces are often put together into a quilt top, which becomes the upper layer of a finished quilt.  Quilting, on the other hand, is the stitching that goes through all the layers of a quilt: the quilt top, the batting, and the backing.  Patchwork doesn’t have to be quilted, and quilting doesn’t have to be done on patchwork.  Isn’t that fascinating?

Most historians agree that quilting probably originated in Egypt, though we don’t have any definitive evidence of that.  We do know for certain that quilting appears in Europe by the twelfth century in the form of doublets worn beneath breastplates–both for cushion and warmth.

From there, quilting evolved into a decorative art form.  One of the very earliest decorative quilts is the Tristan quilt, which was made around 1360, and is held in pieces in at least three different museum and private collections across Europe.

In America and the rest of the world, quilting quickly became nearly synonymous with bed coverings, although it has always been used in clothing.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, women everywhere became downright crazed with quilting, and quilting bees sprang up everywhere.  There is a long-standing tradition in some parts of the United States that girls ought to have thirteen quilts on their wedding day: one for each month of the year, and a thirteenth highly-decorative one for their trousseau.  The skill evidenced in these quilts was meant to be indicative of a young lady ready to run a household–but the quilting was often done communally during a quilting bee, after the thirteen tops were complete and near the date of the wedding, as a celebration of the marriage and as a means to make the work more efficient.  Raise your hand if you’d love to have thirteen hand-made quilts on your wedding day that all your closest friends had helped to sew?  How awesome would THAT be?

Some of these quilts would be whole-cloth quilts, meaning the quilt tops weren’t pieced but rather a single piece of (often white) fabric with extraordinarily fancy stitch work and occasionally trapunto to give visual interest and to display the quilter’s skill.

Later in the 19th century, it was crazy quilting that was all the rage–to the point that the Queen of Hawaii made a famous crazy quilt while in captivity.  Crazy quilts are characterized by their lack of batting and the inclusion of magpie-bits of ribbon and embroidery across the body of the quilt.

Around the time of the Industrial Revolution and the Civil War, the sewing machine was invented–that’s right, folks, every single quilt up until now was entirely made by hand.  Each and every piece was sewn one stitch at a time.  The sewing machine vastly changed the construction and time requirements for patchwork, but the quilting was still largely done by hand throughout this period.  Quilt blocks became more common now, as did creating quilts with sassier fabrics.  Sampler quilts were also popular at this time, showing off the various shapes and skills the stitcher had at her disposal.  Hey, wait a minute!  You’re making a sampler quilt!

In the 1920s and 1930s, scrappy quilts and feedsack fabrics were much more in vogue, largely a reflection of the lean economic times.  These quilts are still highly prized, and many of the fabrics have been reproduced for modern sewing.


Throughout two world wars, quilts were used as a way to raise money and support for troops overseas. Women would hold bees where they would stitch quilts to send to the troops, stitch quilts to sell to raise money to plant Victory Gardens or purchase war bonds, or commemorate the fallen of their towns by embroidering their names on memorial quilts–some of which are housed in museums today.

Today, of course, all these quilting traditions continue, and are joined by the modern quilt movement.  Modern quilters tend to break away from the straight-line structure of the quilts that come before and embrace a more free-form quilt style.  Sometimes this means that blocks are “wonky,” others it simply means that colors are brighter and that inspiration is based not only in traditional themes like nature and family but also pop culture and whimsy.

The sampler quilts we’re making over the coming weeks are, I hope, a delightful mish-mash of all these traditions, and will allow you to use modern fabrics and colors with traditional designs to make a sampler quilt that is just as wonky as you want it to be.  Along the way, we’ll master the patchwork, the quilt top, the batting, the backing, and the binding.  But isn’t knowing a little history a nice way to ground all that work?

All images via Google and used with a Fair Use copyright exclusion .  Any search will lead you to innumerable rabbit holes of quilt history, but try starting here to see what else you can learn!