Quilting is the use of fabric scraps stitched together into a design and sandwiched together with some type of paddings like wool or cotton and a backing fabric. The sandwiched fabric is then stitched together through all three layers and bound around the edges with a second piece of fabric for strength and durability. Many people believe it dates back to ancient Egypt; however, the fabric does not last long in the desert or against the elements, lasting maybe 2-300 years unless found inside a tomb. The first use of quilting in Europe was during the Crusades in the 12th century when they made quilted tops to be worn under armor to protect the wearer. Later it was worn as a doublet or coat. Although quilting has been in existence for a few centuries, during this period, quilting moved from organized and prescribed patterns and forms to abstract expressions, following the changes in painting.
The earliest surviving quilt is the Tristan Quilt (14.44) made in the late 14th century. The quilt depicted scenes from the romance story of Tristan and Isolde and was constructed by sewing two layers of linen with wadding in-between and stitched in brown thread. The scene in this picture is King Mark from scene seven.
Early whole-cloth quilts were made from one solid piece of fabric or strips of fabric, sewn together, to appear as one piece. Because looms were not wide enough to make fabric for the surface of a bed, the central section was printed and the rest surrounded by other fabric pieces. The filler or padding was often wool as it was warmer in winter and cooler in summer. The quilt top, filler, and bottom were hand-stitched together, and over time, this hand stitching became an art form. This Whole-Cloth Quilt (14.45) was made in the 18th century in the Netherlands from textile made in India.
The Industrial Revolution gave people more time, and with more time, and quilting art began to flourish. Women did not have to shear sheep, spin the wool, or weave the cloth, and it was all available in the mercantile in town. Quilts went from utilitarian one-piece tops for beds to intricate piece tops sandwiched with backing and padding inside to be hand-stitched together. Instead of a functional straight stitch, stitching on top of the quilt was sewn in the form of designs.
Medallion quilts were made around a large-scale motif like the tree of life or an eagle or flowers in the center surrounded by pieced or appliques designs and two or more borders. The Medallion Quilt (14.46) was made by Elizabeth Welsh in 1830 from cotton fabric and is an example of a patriotic quilt used as bedding.
The civil war brought many changes in quilting. Quilts were stitched and auctioned to raise funds for the war costs at fairs the abolitionists held. Other quilts were shipped to the soldiers who were fighting the war and equipped with few supplies. This quilt (14.47) was made for a civil war soldier. Since the cots the soldiers used in the field were narrow, the women made narrow quilts so it would not drag on the floor. The quilt for the soldiers on both sides of the war received much heavy use, and very few survive today. This traditional pattern was the 'nine patch’ because it could use small scraps from used clothing of any color.
Harriet Powers (1837–1910) was an African-American slave who was considered a folk artist who made quilts. She recorded local legends, Bible stories, and astronomical occurrences on her traditionally appliqued quilts. The two quilts, Bible Quilt 1896 (14.48) and the Pictorial Quilt 1898 (14.49), are the only two of her quilts that have survived. Both quilts were machine and hand-stitched with applique. Through letters she wrote in the late 1800s, she describes other quilts she made, but they have not been located.
The Amish people are a religious community that settled in the Northeast part of the United States over 200 years ago. Quilts made in patterns and fabrics associated with individual communities were constructed from wool in Pennsylvania and cotton in Ohio. Quilting became a part of social life for the women and they made quilts to celebrate special occasions as well as everyday uses. The Amish women make bold designs (14.50) with distinctive color combinations and hand stitch the quilting patterns.
A remarkable group of women from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, have lived and quilted their entire life on the Alabama River. Isolated from much of the world, a small group of African-American people lived in the hamlet of Gee's Bend. Their contributions to quilting and art are considered to be one of the most exceptional and significant visual and cultural contributions to the history of art. The ancestors of Gee's Bend people were brought there as slaves to work the cotton plantation. After slavery ended, the people stayed on as freed slaves, growing and harvesting cotton until the 1930s, when the government purchased the land and allotted small parcels back to the people.
Quilting started in the 19th century when they would piece strips of fabric (14.51) together to make bedding and quilts to keep their families warm on cold nights. Isolated from most people, they developed a lifestyle different from the surrounding areas. Their quilts became geometric and creative improvisations (14.52), depending on the materials at hand. Today, they sell quilts (14.53) to raise money to support themselves, and the quilts are shown in museums around the world.
The 20th century ushered in a consumerist society, and after the 1950s, most people would just buy a blanket and comforter from the local department store. Quilting became a dying art form in most places (except in isolated areas like Gee's Bend and the Amish), almost lost to future generations. During the 1990s, quilting made a resurgence, and the traditional quilt gave way to art quilts. The traditional three-piece quilt (top, padding, and bottom layers) to keep you warm at night, was replaced with wall art quilts. These smaller, usually landscapes, imagery, or abstracts became a sensation, and the world of quilting never looked back. The art quilt also evolved from the traditional form of quilting, combining known quilt patterns with art styles.
Quilting in America today is a $3.76-billion-dollar annual industry and has more than 16 million quilters or 1 of every 20 people in America quilts. Quilt shows have become increasingly common, and people will travel to shows around the world. Quilts entered into shows earn cash prices and ribbon awards. Contemporary art quilting is a fine art style of quilting, which can be abstract or photo quality. Many artists dye their fabrics or use alternative mediums to achieve the appearance as in the Aspen Trees (14.62) quilt; the fabric was painted before being cut apart. Bivium (14.63) is an example of using digital images and free-form cut fabric, placing the fabric as the quilt was created.