Colonial Quilts: A Brief History Of Quilting In America

There are a lot of quilting “facts” that we have chosen to believe. Whether you believe there was really a code to the Civil War era quilts to help slaves escape from the South to the free North is a matter of personal opinion. It’s a good story, and many of us like to believe it. The same is true with the notion that colonial American women quilted bed coverings so they could use all their fabric scraps.

Here’s the problem with the idea. Colonial women had to weave their own fabrics, so they rarely had scraps, at least not the kind we keep in our stash today.  Tidbits of fabrics that were left over were saved for patching in many cases.  Naturally, if a small piece was needed to complete a necessary bed covering, they were used for that.

Only women of wealth would have had time to quilt. The others were primarily caring for the families, cooking, and weaving in order to have the necessities. Quilting became popular among the middle class (still, the poor could not afford such a luxury) in the mid-1800s when mass produced fabric became available. At this point in history, quilting is still dominated by women. They watched their expenses in a number of ways. First, they used a technique called broderie perse,  a type of appliqué. Quilters snipped out the designs from the fabric and turned under their edges while stitching them onto a solid piece of fabric.

Medallion quilts also gave the early quilters a way to stretch their quilting fabric farther. After all, when fabrics were still considered a luxury, it did not make a lot of sense to cut them into small pieces then sew them back together. Medallion quilts featured a pieced section in the center with large borders surrounding it to make it the needed size.

Whole cloth quilts were also popular during the colonial years. They are exactly what the name implies – whole pieces of fabric sewn sandwiched together with batting in the middle. The decoration came in the quilt designs that held the three layers together.  As simple as they may sound, a great number of these quilts actually featured stunning quilting designs.

Americans have embraced quilting so much that it almost seems like a craft that originated here. That is not the case. First of all, if colonial women were quilting here, they would have brought the craft with them from their old country. In addition, remnants of quilted apparel have been traced back to ancient Egypt.

Quilting is not a purely American hobby. The craft did, however, enjoy a revival during the nation’s bicentennial in 1976. This revival is probably the reason so many younger quilters associate quilting with the idea of a purely American craft.

Why is it that we have so many preconceived notions about quilting? It is probably because everyone loves a good story. We enjoy knowing about a quilt’s history – who made it and why, and if it was a gift, for whom? The omission of this information from past quilts has given us the opportunity to romanticize it or to create our own theories. Giving an old quilt a supposed history is fun, but know that your theory or anyone else’s may be nothing but myth unless you can find facts to back it up. Keep all these questions in mind when you make your own quilts and be sure to label each one with the appropriate information. By providing the “story” or history of your quilts, you eliminate the need (or desire) of others to create one.

By Penny Halgren of

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