Quilting: A tradition passed down through generations

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Katerina Bulovska
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A quilt is a combination of different layers of fiber, composed of woven cloth top, a layer of batting and a woven back, all stitched together in decorative patterns. It is usually pieced together with many pieces of cloth and often has a single piece of fabric on the top.

There are many traditions regarding the design and characteristics of quilts. They are often made or given to specify significant life events such as graduations, marriage and the birth of a child. People in almost every part of the world used stuffed fabrics for bedding, clothing, armor, and decoration. The word comes from the Latin ‘culcita,’ meaning a stuffed sack.

Little Amsterdam. Photo Credit

The quilt in the colonial period of the USA was originally used to provide warm covers for bed. Colonial women were responsible for spinning, weaving, and sewing clothes for their family, so they didn’t have much time for decorating quilts.

During this period, blankets were typically used for bedding. As the people couldn’t afford to buy a new blanket every time one was worn or damaged, they would patch and combined them with other blankets. However, these were strictly functional items. Later, with the increased manufacturing of fabrics, they became more affordable and artistic quilting become more common.

During the 19th century, whole cloth quilts and medallion quilts were quite popular. The whole cloth quilt is often made of single piece of material on the top and back, with decoration in simple or complex designs. The medallion quilt was brought from Europe by the colonists. It had a simple design, a figure in the center surrounded by multiple borders, but dramatic effect.

Pictorial Quilt with American Flag, unknown maker, Ohio, cotton, c. 1930, dimensions: 64″ x 75″. From the collection of Bill Volckening, Portland, Oregon. Photo Credit

During the warmer months, a variation of the quilt was used called a summer quilt. It didn’t have the middle filling and was used as a bedcover. The applique quilt was considered more elegant and only the wealthy could afford it. Its top is decorated with smaller pieces of contrasting fabrics cut into different shapes.

When the Amish colonies were established in Pennsylvania and the Midwest, they used the feather beds traditionally used in Europe. But as time passed, Amish women began creating unique quilts that reflected their lifestyle.

Hawaiian quilt. Photo Credit

African American quilts were made of scraps and, unfortunately, only a few of them have survived. It was previously believed that because of the lack of time, slaves didn’t make quilts for their own use. But researchers have shown that the skilled black slave women did make quilts, both for their owner’s family and for their personal use. African American quilts represent a diversity of work that varies from region to region.

Native American quilts are also called Star quilts, not just because of the art form, but because of the spiritual importance they hold in their culture. The Lakota tribe is one of the many that makes them.

Detail of the Tristan quilt showing a noble and a herald.

In Europe, the practice of quilting dates back to the Middle Ages. They were particularly popular during the Italian Renaissance. One famous quilt from this period that survives into the present day is the Tristan Quilt, which shows scenes from the story of Tristan and Isolde.

“Collecting New York Beauty Quilts: Bill Volckening’s Passion” was an exhibition featured in 2013 at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles. Photo Credit

The AIDS Memorial quilt is one of the most famous quilts, made to commemorate people lost to HIV. The quilting started in San Francisco in 1987 and is still under construction. The exhibition of Paula Nadelstern, a contemporary quilt artist, is the first solo exhibition of this type that took place in 2009 in the American Folk Art Museum in New York.