When we speak of quilt making, we really are talking of three different crafts: quilting, patchwork and applique. Quilting refers to the sewing together of two layers of fabric with an inner layer of some warm, insulating material, such as cotton, silk or wool. It is both practical and decorative. Quilting is one of the oldest crafts known to humankind. The earliest known visual reference to quilting is found on an Egyptian ivory carving from about 3400 BC. The carving shows a pharaoh wearing a mantle hat. The oldest actual example of quilted fabric, a quilted carpet found in Mongolia, dates from somewhere between the first century BC and the second century AD.
Patchwork and applique are also very ancient techniques. Patchwork or piecework is the process of seaming small pieces of fabric in to a larger whole. Pieced silk banners and votive hangings have been discovered in the caves of the Thousand Buddhas in India that date from the sixth century. Applique is the process of sewing smaller pieces of fabric onto a larger background fabric. Perhaps the earliest example of appliqued work is an Egyptian canopy of appliqued leather dating from 980 BC.
European settlers brought a rich tradition of quilt making to America. Although no quilts survive from seventeenth century America, household inventories make numerous references to them. The oldest surviving pieced quilt in existence is the Saltonstall quilt made in Massachusetts in 1704. There are only a few quilts surviving from the early eighteenth century, but many good examples remain from the latter part of the century. Applique with embroidered accents is typical of the quilts of this period. The Valentine Museum in Richmond has a wonderful example of the late eighteenth century quilt, the Westover-Berkley coverlet.
Quilting flourished during the nineteenth century. By the beginning of the century American textile manufacturing had grown to the point that a wide variety of quality fabrics were readily available to the homemaker. The industry continued to grow as new printing techniques and synthetic dyes were invented. This wealth of fabric available is reflected in the creation of new designs and variations on old patterns. Most of the patchwork patterns used by today's quilters were developed during the nineteenth century. The names of quilt block patterns reflect the history of America's westward migration.
Appliqued and embroidered quilts also flourished in the nineteenth century. Many of the appliqued masterpieces known as Baltimore album quilts survive in museums and private collections. The Victorian crazy quilt was introduced in the second half of the century. These exuberant creations were a wonderful way to display both ones skill at embroidery and collection of fancy dress fabrics.
Quilt making declined in the early twentieth century, but the Great Depression brought a revival of quilt making. Economic hardship made home sewing more important. Thrifty quilters used flour and feed sacks for their quilts. The Works Progress Administration encouraged the development of community industry and handicrafts. Recognizing the importance of preserving American handicrafts, the WPA taught quilting, weaving, applique and embroidery. World War II brought an end to the quilt revival.
As the bicentennial of the American Revolution approached, Americans again became interested in quilting. Since the nineteen seventies there has been a great revival of interest in quilting. Books and television programs about quilts have encouraged hundreds of thousands of Americans to pick up a needle and make a quilt. A thriving industry has grown around this renewed interest. The proliferation of quilting guilds and quilt shows has kept the quilt revival alive. The art quilt movement has developed during this same period. Fabric has become the medium of choice for many fine artists.
Whether traditional folk art from centuries past or contemporary masterworks, quilts are great American treasures to be enjoyed in area museum collections and quilt exhibits.