Dating back more than 5000 years, the art and craft of quilting are inextricably intertwined with the history of textiles, clothing, and home decor, and quilted objects are still immensely popular today. From the decorative to the functional, quilting is everywhere, but just what is quilting?
By definition, quilting is the stitching together of several layers of fabric and filler material called batting or wadding, typically in the order of fabric-batting-fabric. However, depending on the desired use, the filler layer is sometimes left out or replaced with one or more additional layers of fabric.
Modern usage of the term ‘quilting’ also often refers to cutting or tearing fabric into smaller pieces and then sewing them back together into a flat sheet, which is better known as piecework or patchwork. Though piecework is typically used as one layer of the above mentioned fabric-and-batting sandwich, it is a craft all its own.
Historically, the first quilted objects were clothing, such as cloaks designed for warmth. Evidence of quilted clothing in the form of carvings and art depicting clothing with quilt-like textures can be found from as far back as 3400 BCE from Egypt, while the oldest surviving example of quilted material was discovered in Mongolia, dating to the 1st or 2nd century CE. In India, quilting dates to approximately the 4th century CE, and quilts called ralli are still produced in long-held traditions, featuring bold patchwork designs or vivid embroidery and applique.
Although quilting got its start in Africa and Asia, its modern popularity is greatest in Europe and America. First coming to Europe in the 12th century as padding for armor called gambesons, quilted garments were embraced for warmth in cold winters, and eventually, the act of stitching layers together translated into quilts as bed and window coverings.
There is little evidence that quilting developed as a thrifty way to use scraps, in spite of popular beliefs.
While the lower classes may have patched together blankets from blankets and clothes that were wearing out, the layers and time necessary for creating quilts were typically left to the upper classes who could afford them. It wasn’t until several hundred years later that quilting started to become the democratic art we know today.
This was due, almost entirely, to the time-saving inventions that drove the Industrial Revolution, of which the sewing machine was, arguably, the most important. With more inexpensive fabrics, particularly in cotton, and more free time, the average person was able to take up quilting as an expressive and functional art.
Throughout the 1800s and the first few decades of the 20th century, quilting was ubiquitous, found in just about every household in the US and UK, spurred on first by general trendiness and then by necessity during the world wars.
Despite a decline in popularity in the 1950s and 60s, quilting experienced a revival in America in the 1970s, due to a combination of interest in fiber arts—traditionally “women’s work”—from the Feminist movement and a sense of patriotic nostalgia brought on by the United States bicentennial celebrations.
From its humble beginnings in practicality to practical beauty, displays of wealth, and then on to fine art, quilting has a long and diverse history, but it’s certainly not fading. If the deep-rooted history of quilting hasn’t inspired you to take it up, check out Quilting: A Contemporary and Global Art to find out more about quilting in the contemporary world.
If you want to know more about the history of quilting, have we got a timeline for you! Keep an eye out for Part 1, coming soon!