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Center for Great Plains Studies


HISTORY OF QUILTING

Julie Johnson

Random House Dictionary defines a quilt as "a coverlet for a bed, made of two layers of fabric with some soft substance, as wool or down, between them and stitched in patterns or tufted through all thicknesses in order to prevent the filling from shifting."

The word quilt comes from the Latin culcita meaning a stuffed sack, but it came into the English language from the French word cuilte.

The origins of quilting remain unknown, but historians do know that quilting, piecing, and applique were used for clothing and furnishings in diverse parts of the world in early times. The earliest known quilted garment is on the carved ivory figure of a Pharaoh of the Egyptian First Dynasty about 3400 B.C. In 1924 archaeologists discovered a quilted floor covering in Mongolia. They estimated that it dates from somewhere between the first century B.C. to the second century A.D. There are also numerous references to quilts in literature and also inventories of estates.

Crusaders brought quilting to Europe from the Middle East in the late 11th century. Quilted garments were popular in the Middle Ages. Knights wore them under their armor for comfort. They also used quilted garments to protect the metal armor from the elements (rain, snow, sun).

The earliest known surviving bed quilt is one from Sicily from the end of the fourteenth century. It is made of linen and padded with wool. The blocks across the center are scenes from the legend of Tristan. The quilt is 122" by 106" and is in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

When settlers arrived in the new world, they of course brought with them much of the cultural heritage from Europe. Although it is not known if they brought quilts with them, it is assumed that they brought the art of quilting with them. The first reference to quilts in America is at the end of the seventeenth century in the listing of a household inventory of a Salem, Massachusetts sea captain. None of the early colonial quilts survive. This makes sense when you consider that for the most part in the early colonial days, quilts were made from fabric that was salvaged from its previous use. The earliest surviving American pieced quilt is the Saltonstall quilt from 1704. Historians were able to date the Saltonstall quilt in an unusual way. At one time a common technique for quilting was to cut the quilt pieces out of paper and piece them together before starting in on the fabric. This was done in the Saltonstall quilt and the paper pieced quilt was used as an inner lining for the quilt. As the outer fabric wore out, the date on a newspaper came into view, thus giving historians an accurate idea of when the quilt was done.

In the nineteenth century quilt-making flourished especially in the period between 1825 and 1875. As the original colonists had brought quilting from the old world, the settlers who began moving west in the nineteenth century brought quilting with them. Eventually quilting came to the Great Plains. Quilting was a craft that adapted well to the Great Plains and quilts became an important asset to settlers on the plains. Not only could they be used on beds, they were also useful as covers for doors and windows and as floor mats for the children to play on. In many cases they were also used as currency to pay bills. Although some women continued to use remnants from clothes to piece their quilts, most learned to take advantage of the wide variety of colorful calicos to create works of art.

The wide open spaces and relative isolation of the Great Plains also made the idea of the "quilting bee" attractive. At a quilting bee women from the area would bring quilt tops that were already pieced and work together to quilt the top. The quilting bee afforded plains women a chance to socialize. Often a quilting bee would be a full day affair with lunch served to the women who came to help and dinner for all the families. Sometimes there would be a dance in the evening. One of the happier functions of the quilting bee was to help provide young women with quilts for their hope chests.

Because quilts provide protection from the elements, quilt-making is an art or skill that has never ceased to exist. As a work of art, they are easy to move around and many people can find satisfaction in the use of different colors and different fabrics. The usefulness of quilts has also contributed to their continued existence. Their advantages include increased warmth, greater strength, and the recycling of existing materials.

We are currently in a period of renewed interest in quilts and quilt-making. In many cases quilts have become objects on display in museums. The Spencer Art Museum on the campus of the University of Kansas has an impressive collection of quilts and in the summer of 1997 the University of Nebraska at Lincoln received a donation of 950 quilts from Ardis and Robert James. The quilts date from 1750 to 1990. The spring 1990 issue of Kansas History includes four articles on quilts and quilt-making.

QUILT BLOCKS

by Sue Sielert

The quilt block is traditionally a patterned square of fabric that is repeated or alternated with plain blocks to form the overall design on the top of a quilt. Quilt blocks are not a standard size but all blocks used in a single top will be the same size. Blocks can be either pieced or applique. An appliqued block has the design cut from fabric arranged and sewn on a full square of background fabric. A pieced block is separate shapes sewn together to form a square. This project will work with traditional pieced blocks only.

Nine Patch1. The traditional pieced quilt block has many variations but is most often comprised of geometric shapes sewn together to form a square of usually 8" to 16" in size. One of the most easily recognized traditional blocks is the Nine Patch. A Nine Patch is made by sewing five patterned or dark pieces (patches) to four light square pieces in alternating order. These nine sewn squares make one block.

Shoo Fly2. When squares in the Nine Patch block are made by using two triangles more designs are possible. Shoo Fly varies the Nine Patch by dividing each of the four corner pieces into a light and dark triangle.

Church Dash3. Another variation develops when one square piece is divided into two equal rectangles in the basic Nine Patch design. The Churn Dash block combines the triangles and rectangle to expand the Nine Patch.

Pacific Ocean4. Blocks do not always use the same scale for each piece or section of the block. The Prairie Queen block combines two large scale triangles in the corner section with the middle section using four squares. The center piece is one full size square. Each of the nine sections does have the same overall measurement and fits together. These three blocks are all variations on the Nine Patch. They are all three sections in three rows. Looking at all the blocks in this project will give you and the students a better understanding of even the more complicated blocks.

Patterns #5-8 are more variations of the Nine Patch that can be used with this project.

Hourglass and Contrary WifeThese traditional blocks can be used in a variety of projects with students to teach several different skills in addition to the history and traditional art form of quilting. To use this project with all age levels fabric and sewing are replaced with construction and glue. Outlined are two basic skill level projects that can be adapted for your classroom use. Either project could be expanded into very creative work such as permanently decorating a bulletin board or even the hallway with quilt blocks.

Letter X and Variable StarOnce the students have mastered the construction paper techniques, work with fabric could be taught. Local quilt guilds or sewing groups may be able to help teach the students proper piecing techniques. Most quilt craft books found at the public library will have some historic background to supplement the project in addition to explaining how to construct a quilt block. Quilting is currently a very popular craft and resource people should be easy to find. Contact your local county extension office for assistance. It is also possible that parents or grandparents of the students quilt and could be persuaded to offer technical assistance or to share their work. Quilt magazines can be easily found on the newsstand to show students color photographs of full-size quilts in both traditional and contemporary designs. Many quilt blocks change appearance when set next to each other in a full size quilt. Try to find photographs of full size quilts to show students.

Please discourage students from bringing quilts to class on their own. Size and weight of a quilt would not be easy for students to carry in a pack or sack. Damage or loss of quilts could easily occur.

Quilting as a traditional craft has now become an accepted art form. Museums in your area may have a quilt show scheduled and allow field trips to expand the students knowledge. The art of quilting is a traditional craft. Making quilt blocks should enhance any social studies unit in addition to expanding the students' observation skills, math skills, and introducing them to a familiar but formal art form.

Match a Block:

Prepare sample blocks and place on the board for easy viewing by the students. Pre-cut all squares, triangles and rectangles in colors needed for each block. A 9" overall block size with 3" sections or pieces is an easy size to handle. Students must determine the number of light and dark pieces needed for the complete block. A basic block could be prepared with 9 empty adjacent squares on a separate piece of paper for each student. Students then count out the appropriate number of pieces and place each piece on the outlined paper to form the block. Glue all pieces down when the arrangement is correct. More complicated blocks without the basic outline could be used with older students. Counting, addition, subtraction skills and some basic concepts of geometry could be used with this project.

Draft a Block:

Prepare sample blocks and place on the board for each viewing by the students. Using graph paper, ruler and pencil, the students draft or draw each block. A 2" square for each section or 8" overall size will fit on a standard sheet of graph paper. Have the student measure and draw the basic Nine Patch. Next divide any of the 9 squares into the necessary rectangles or triangles. Indicate on the draft which is light or dark colors. Count the appropriate light and dark pieces. Measure and cut from construction paper. Arrange properly on draft and glue in place.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Cooper, Patricia and Bufer, Norma Bradley. THE QUILTERS: WOMEN AND DOMESTIC ART--AN ORAL HISTORY, Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1978.
  • Hall, Carrie A. and Kretsinger, Rose. THE ROMANCE OF THE PATCHWORK QUILT. Caldwell, Idaho: Bonanza Books, 1935.
  • Khin, Yvonne,
  • THE COLLECTORS DICTIONARY OF QUILT NAMES & PATTERNS. Washington, D.C., Acropolis Books Ltd, 1988.
  • Orlofsky, Patsy and Myron. QUILTS IN AMERICA. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.
  • Rogers, Josephine. THE 7-DAY QUILT. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1979.
  • Sommer, Elyse. A PATCHWORK, APPLIQUE, AND QUILTING PRIMER. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Company, 1975.
  • Wilson, Erica. QUILTS OF AMERICA. New York: Oxmoor House, Inc., 1979.

Sue Sielert has BME and MLS degrees from Emporia State. She is also a quilter and a member of the local quild guild.