Quilting in the Middle Ages
A Chapter in Quilting History
Did quilting exist in Medieval Europe? The answer is yes, but that is just about the only thing that is certain, and as such it is different from what we consider quilting to be today. Because quilted items were made to be used and because fabric is a fairly fragile medium susceptible to damage from vermin, light, and body oils there are few existing examples of quilting that have survived over the centuries. Therefore, most of what we do know is derived from surviving artwork. For example, if you look at the man at the far left of this image, you can see that he is wearing a quilted garment under his breastplate. In this lens, I introduce you to what we do know about the quilting process during the Middle Ages.
Image from St Ursula Shrine, 1489; Gilded and painted wood, Memlingmuseum, Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges
What are the Middle Ages?
The term Middle Ages generally refers to the time period in Europe and Great Britain between the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Renaissance, approximately 500 - 1500 A.D./C.E. (Christian Era) and is considered by many to have been the "Dark Ages" of Europe. At first glance, this may appear to be true because no longer were the classical sculptors and artists creating works of art such as the Venus di Milo.
Much of the fabric of European life became religious in nature as Christianity spread throughout western and eastern Europe. In October of 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, invaded England and is now remembered as William The Conqueror. The Holy War and the first of the Crusades began in 1095 with the objective of returning the Holy Land to the control of the church. These Crusades sent many men far away from their homelands to those foreign and exotic. The latter centuries became the age of chivalry, of courtly love. The 12th and 13th century troubadours of France sang the virtues of love in the well known Roman de la Rose as well as many others. Much of the art and literature of the times was produced under the auspices of the church.
The Image is a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry dated to the 11th century that depicts the battle between the English and Norman forces in October of 1066.
Quilted Medieval Bedding
There are two different types of quilted items that were made during the Middle Ages; those made as bed coverings and items made to be worn under armor. First I will discuss the quilts that were used for bedding. As mentioned previously, there are few surviving examples of quilted items so much of our information is derived from written or artistic descriptions of quilted items. In a 12th century French poem La Lai del Desire the author mentions a "quilt of two sorts of silk cloth in a checkboard pattern, well made and rich" (Quilting, Colby, 1971).
It appears from later examples that Medieval quilts or coverlets generally consisted of two layers of whole fabric that were stitched together in a decorative or figural pattern with selective stuffing rather than a whole layer of batting in between. One such example is the Tristan quilt shown here that depicts scenes from the story of Tristan and Isolde. This is one of three surviving examples that were made in Sicily at the end of the fourteenth century. These quilts were made of linen and only stuffed in selected areas after the decorative stitching was completed.
Image courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum collection
Quilted Medieval Garments
There are numerous artistic representations of quilted garments being worn under and over battle armor during the Middle Ages. It makes perfect sense that quilted garments would be used this way because the padded nature of the quilted garments grants not only warmth but comfort to the wearer. You can imagine how cold and sharp the chain mail and plate would feel against your skin. I can imagine that it wasn't very comfortable to say the least. The image shown here is the Coat Armor (jupon) of Charles VI of France, from the late 14th century (image courtesy of the Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds)
To learn more about the history of textiles, start here...
The origins, traditions and symbolism of patchwork in clothing and quilts are explored from multi-national examples over the past 500 years. This classic book now in its first English edition traces quilts across Europe and Asia and through the growing textile industry of North America. Color and black-and-white photographs show beautiful applique and Amish quilts as well as crazy-quilts, bridal and friendship quilts and more. Examples represent historical and contemporary prize-winning designs. The author provides an extensive bibliography in hopes that it will foster more extensive research into the interesting background of patchwork art. Quilt collectors, dealers, and makers, as well as textile artists and designers will find interesting explanations of the designs. They will also find inspiration for their own work in this beautiful book.
Among the most evocative items to be discovered by archaeologists are the scraps of silk and wool and other fabrics that signal so eloquently their owner's status and concerns. This highly readable account will be of wide general interest; dress historians and archaeologists will also find a wealth of new insights into the fashions, clothing and textile industries of medieval England and Europe.
Links to more information about Medieval quilted items...
- myArmoury.com: Quilted Armour Defenses
A resource for historic arms and armor collectors with photo galleries, reviews, reference materials, and a comparison tool.
- The Function of Armor in Medieval and Renaissance Europe | The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Introduction: Although today appreciated as works of art or as examples of historical technology, it must be noted that all armor, whether used in warfare, tournaments, or parades, once had a "working lifetime." Often these objects have been subjecte
- The Tristan Quilt - How was it made? - a set on Flickr
Work is underway in France on making a full-size replica of the quilt. Some of the photographs included here have been provided by Francine Nicolle who is leading the project to produce the copy. This set of photos shows the progress on the project.