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Patchwork and Quilting: A Potted History

Updated on January 1, 2017
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Quilter, author, tutor, and columnist, Jan T Urquhart Baillie has been sharing her passion for quilting for more than 30 years.

Patchwork and quilting: now and then

Quiltmaking is not new, it's been around for centuries.

Born of necessity, patchwork was about being frugal, while quilting was about warmth or protection.

No longer just a cottage craft, some areas of quilting have now been elevated to the realms of fine art. Such a piece is Boab, by renowned Australian quilt artist, Susan Mathews.

What are the origins of quiltmaking?

Ancient craft from the middle east and the orient

The Knights of the Crusades wore quilted garments and decorated their armour with this sewing technique that they learned from their enemies, the Muslim Saracen soldiers, who used quilted coverings as an alternate means of protection for themselves and their steeds.

When the Crusaders returned to Europe, bed linens and garments were made using quilting techniques. More warmth was gained using the three layers that is a quilt.

Gradually the makers began to use decorative stitchery to enhance these early quilted works.

See the wonderful quilted horse covering - On the Saracen soldier's horse?

The Crusaders before Antioch - Battle
The Crusaders before Antioch - Battle

Photo purchased from iStockphoto[dot]com

Quilt styles - in no particular order

  • Whole cloth quilts
  • Strippy quilts
  • Block based quilts
  • Sampler quilts
  • String quilts
  • Strip quilts
  • Baltimore Applique Album quilts
  • Applique quilts
  • Bible quilts
  • Album quilts
  • Memory quilts
  • Photo quilts
  • Modern quilts
  • Art quilts
  • Amish quilts
  • Hexagon quilts

Modern Quilting — the new kid on the block

There's a new wave of quilting and the style is big and bold, with lots of bright, clear colours.

I have made a couple of these quilts, but didn't know I was 'in trend'!

This is the one I made for Bob's eldest daughter and it is very definitely in the modern style!

Karen's favourite colour is turquoise and her second favourite is pink, so I chose some great fabrics combining the two and made extra large blocks to feature the fabrics.

Karen's modern style quilt by Jan T Baillie
Karen's modern style quilt by Jan T Baillie

Whole cloth quilts

made from a single piece of fabric

Whole cloth quilts are traditionally made in plain fabric, often unbleached calico (muslin).

They are heavily quilted in elaborate designs, showcasing the maker's skill in quilt design and stitchery.

Angela Zilliotto's Bride's Trousseau Quilt from Griffith - in NSW, Australia

Angela Zilliotto's Bride's Trousseau Quilt from Griffith
Angela Zilliotto's Bride's Trousseau Quilt from Griffith | Source

Photograph Peter Kabaila

Welsh quilts

often also whole cloth

Families made these quilts as a cottage industry.

The traditions were passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter.

Welsh quilt - in gorgeous gold

Antique Welsh whole cloth quilt
Antique Welsh whole cloth quilt

Image property of the York Quilt Museum and Gallery

Broderie Perse quilts

Very frugal quilters made these

Fabrics from the exotic orent and India were being brought to the British Isles when fabrics were fairly staid.

Women were enraptured by these beautiful paisley and oriental birds and flowers, that they began to cut the designs apart and sew them with very tiny stitches to a whole cloth background.

The resulting quilts were quite beautiful, and it was indeed a frugal use of a scarce resource.

The Rajah Quilt - a famous Australian Broderie Perse quilt

The Rajah Quilt
The Rajah Quilt | Source

Image property of the National Quilt Register, Australia

Inner Sanctum quilt by Jan T Urquhart Baillie. Modern 3D take on Inner City
Inner Sanctum quilt by Jan T Urquhart Baillie. Modern 3D take on Inner City

Hexagon quilts

That's where many of us started!

English paper piecing is a method for making paper patches, covering these patches with fabric, and joining them together into a design with whip stitch.

Many quiltmakers began this way in the last part of the twentieth century. (Me included.)

Hexagons are usually the pattern, but there are several other traditional paper piecing patterns that were/are popular:

  • Tumbling Blocks
  • Baby Blocks
  • Tumbler
  • Inner City

and many more...

Hexagon quilt started by Margaret's mother - while she was still living in England, and finished by Margaret (student)

Margaret and her mother's hexagon quilt
Margaret and her mother's hexagon quilt | Source

Hexagons Come in Many Guises

While traditionally hexagon quilts were made like Margaret's mother did hers — sewn together in rows, or sewn into rosettes of seven hexagons, making flowers, there are many other designs that can achieved by colour placement.

Variations on the design Grandmother's Flower Garden can be found in Jaynette Huff's book on the subject.

Sampler quilt from an early class with me

Carol's Listen With Your Eyes quilt
Carol's Listen With Your Eyes quilt

Sampler quilts

where each block is different

Beginning quiltmakers are often taught via a sampler quilt, as each block tries out a new technique, or builds on a previous method.

Sampler quilts were extremely popular in the quilting revival of the 1980s.

Patchwork teachers would instruct students in making simple blocks, each one adding a few more skill levels, until enough blocks were completed to make a bed sized quilt.

My basket medallion quilt - Basket of Fancy Flowers

The Basket Quilt
The Basket Quilt

Medallion quilts

central design area quilts

Medallions have been a design favourite in many areas of art for years.

Quilting is no exception.

My love of medallion style quilts has caused me to produce more than one of these lovely patchwork quilts.

Medallions have a central design area, with 'ring' of other designs around this centre.

In patchwork quilts, that means a block of much larger proportions is made, and then successive borders or rounds are added to this central design.

Each 'ring' has a different block pattern usually, resulting in rich, complex designs.

String quilts

a very old technique

These quilts fell out of favour, but are experiencing a bit of a revival.

The idea is that the quiltmaker sewed strings (left over strips of fabric, too narrow to be cut into patches) to a shape. This made some new 'fabric' for her quilts.

The shape was often cut from old letters, where the paper was very thin, so that joining the patches together was fairly simple.

String quilt - in voiles

Voile string quilt by Ashley from Vermont
Voile string quilt by Ashley from Vermont

'Strippy' quilts

Sewn in vertical rows

Quiltmakers have always been thrifty, and have used whatever they had on hand to make wonderful patchwork quilts.

The strippy so-called style is where the maker sews together vertical (usually) rows of blocks, and joins the rows with wide strips of fabric.

Originally, it is thought, she did this to use her precious 'stuff' in the limited quantity she had, while still displaying the fabric well.

Block based designs

Quilts made using traditional block patterns

This style is probably the most common form of quilt design.

The quiltmaker decides on a block pattern (or patterns) and makes the quilt top using that design.

Album quilts

Autograph 'books' of a different kind

Quilters would make blocks which they signed, to give to a recipient for a special occasion.

Some quilts were for weddings, some for going away gifts, but all were precious to the person who was lucky enough to receive one of these quilts. That's why there are many surviving examples, as they were not used often.

Quote from Womenfolk[dot]com:

Not all applique album quilts were signed and some were just signed with a few names. Many had names on most or all of the blocks. Sometimes all the names, dates and verses were written by one woman who was talented at calligraphy. Embroidery or fine ink sketches were sometimes used to add detail to the blocks.

Baltimore Maryland quilt - How lovely!

Baltimore Album Quilt, c. 1850
Baltimore Album Quilt, c. 1850

Picture property of the Maryland Historical Society

Floral Album Quilt from Nebraska

F;oral Album quilt
F;oral Album quilt

Image property of Nebraska State Historical Society

Amish quilts

old order quilts

Quote from Answers[dot]com:

Amish quilts are reflections of the Amish way of life. Because the Amish people believe in not being "flashy" or "worldly" in dress and lifestyle, their quilts reflect this religious philosophy. They use only solid colors in their clothing and quilts. Some church districts limit the use of certain colors such as yellow or red because those are considered "too worldly". Black is a dominant color. Although Amish quilts appear austere from a distance, the craftsmanship is often of the highest quality and the stitching forms vigorous patterns that contrast well with the plain background. These traits appeal to a modern aesthetic; antique Amish quilts are among the most highly prized among collectors and quilting enthusiasts.

Amish quilts hung in the wind

Amish quilts
Amish quilts

Image purchased from iStockphoto[dot]com

Amish Quilt
Amish Quilt
Another favourite book on my shelf. I think I bought it in 1988.

My opinion on the topic

and not only mine!

I'm biased, of course, this is my favourite topic: quilts.

One of the greatest things about quilting for me is the community spirit that is a worldwide phenomenon.

Quilters make quilts for loved ones, for troubled people, for charity, for fund-raising...

They help one another immediately when another quilter is in need...

Quilts warm the body, and the soul.

The most important thing to know is...

The patchwork and quilting community is one of the most caring and sharing group of people spread across the globe.

I'd love to hear what you think.

© 2010 Jan T Urquhart Baillie


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