Colonial Quilts: A Brief History Of Quilting In America

There are a great deal of “facts” about quilting that we have decided to accept as true. It is up to each individual to decide if they think there actually existed a code sewn into quilts during the time of the American Civil War that let slaves flee from the slave states in the South to the free states in the North. It’s an interesting tale, and a lot of us would like to think that it’s true. The same can be said for the idea that women in colonial America quilted bed coverings in order to make use of all of their leftover bits of fabric.

The issue with the proposal is as follows. Women in colonial America were required to weave their own cloth, so they had very few scraps—at least, not the kind that we save in our stashes now. In many instances, scraps of leftover fabric were set aside specifically for the purpose of repairing. Whenever there was a possibility that a missing component may prevent an essential bed covering from being finished, these pieces were used instead.

Quilting was a time-consuming hobby that could only have been pursued by ladies of means. In order to provide for their families, the rest of the people were mostly responsible for domestic tasks such as cooking and weaving. When mass-produced fabric first became available in the middle of the 1800s, quilting quickly gained popularity among the middle class. However, the poor were still unable to buy such a luxury. At this moment in history, women continue to hold the majority of leadership roles in the quilting industry. They used a variety of strategies to keep a close eye on their spending. They started by employing an approach known as broderie perse, which is a form of appliqué. Quilters cut the designs out of the cloth using snips and then stitched them onto a solid piece of fabric while turning the edges of the designs under.

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.

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