A (Fun) History of Quilts and Embroidery – Part II

Last week we explored the fascinating history of embroidery. This week we will delve into a brief history of quilting so you can see where the roots of the craft began and how they sparked my interest for my work.


A Brief History of American Quilting


Quilts have been around for thousands of years and in many cultures. Though they have become widely known as American folk art, quilts were being created far before Europeans made their way over to the new world.


The word quilt comes from the Latin term for “stuffed sack.” This made me laugh when I first heard it, but it makes sense. Quilts are basically sandwiches made of cloth. They are made of the top (which is usually decorative), the back and the filler in between. American quilts were originally made purely as functional items. Winters were cold in the new world, and people needed warm bedding and door hangings to insulate houses.


Early settlers didn’t have a lot of time on their hands to indulge in the art of decorative quilting. They were too busy spinning, weaving and sewing clothing. Their primary concern was keeping their families clothed and warm. Because these early settlers had scarce resources and little money, sometimes they needed to patch together bits of cloth to create new blankets. Worn blankets would sometimes become the filler for new blankets. These women weren’t patching together fabric for decoration or sentimental reasons, but purely for economical and practical purposes.


Years later, when textiles were more readily available and manufactured in America, women began to have more freedom for decorative quilting.  Many quilts that were created in the years between 1750 and 1850 are now preserved. These early quilts are often very elaborate and took many years to piece and patch together. They are often kept in families as heirlooms or are hung in museums.


In the early 1800s, whole cloth quilts were very popular. A whole cloth quilt is made of a single piece of material on the front and back and is decorated with an elaborate design quilting the front and back together. Applique quilts were popular from the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s and were made of whole cloth with contrasting pieces of fabric appliqued to the top. Typically you would see applique quilts in the homes of the wealthy because the fabric and labor to create these quilts were expensive.


As materials became more available and life more settled, medallion quilts became popular. The style originated in Europe and was brought over by colonists. These quilts had a central motif with multiple borders and allowed quilters more freedom to express themselves artistically as they created these quilts using applique, patchwork, embroidery or a combination of techniques.


Quilting became a big part of social interaction. In rural communities, women would hold quilting bees. These were social events where women would gather together to collaborate and finish several quilts in a single day.


The invention of the sewing machine made quilting even more accessible. During World War I, quilts were put together for the troops overseas, for fundraising and to raise awareness. During the Great Depression, quilts became more utilitarian again as families stitched together any fabric they could find to keep warm. During World War II, signature quilts were very popular. Businesses and citizens would pay to have their signature or business name embroidered on quilt blocks. These quilts were then raffled off and proceeds went to the Red Cross.


I’ve been very fortunate to own MT Needleworks and be able to carry on the tradition of quilting. Whether traditional or contemporary, the quilts I create are based on the needs and imagination of my clients. It’s a great, creative process that I would never want to give up.


If you have an idea for a quilt and would like help, contact me. I’d love the opportunity to make your ideas come alive through needle and thread!


-Teresa Giltner, Owner, MT Needleworks 

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