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3 December 2013

A Brief History of Patchwork and Quilting

The word Quilt is thought to connect with the Latin word ‘cucita’ meaning a bolster or cushion, and was first used in England in the 13th century. Quilting can be traced back to the Middle Ages, and was widely-practised, with the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibiting examples from Europe, the Far East and India. Quilting is also known to have been practised in Persia, Turkestan and Africa.

Quilting is usually considered to mean two layers of fabric stitched together with a thicker layer between them, though this latter layer is not essential. Early 18th century English quilting for example only used the two outer layers of fabric.

The earliest quilting was used to make bed covers, the finest of which often became family heirlooms in medaieval times. Later, in the Middle Ages, quilting was used for protective wear such as that worn under armour to make it more comfortable and sometimes as the top layer for those too poor to afford metal armour. It was still used to produce warm, light clothing as well.

The 17th century was the heyday of quilting in Britain: in the early part of the century for the silk doublets and breeches worn by the wealthy, and later for petticoats, jackets and waistcoats.

There are few surviving examples of pre-18th century quilts, though the Quilters’ Guild Collection contains the 1718 Silk Patchwork Coverlet, which is one of the earliest known dated patchworks. At this time quilting was thought of as a professional skill while patchwork just a ladies’ pastime. Quilted petticoats were popular for fashionable ladies daywear.

Although quilting and patchwork have been practised for centuries, their popularity has varied according to changes in society. Styles have changed depending on the materials available and the social rank of the maker quilter.

The wholecloth quilt was at it's most popular in the late 19th and early 20th century. This was a traditional skill passed on through generations of quilters in northern England, Wales and the Scottish Borders, with each area developing their own styles and designs.

Quilting in the 20th century suffered from the effects of two world wars, with the resultant changes in society leading to a decline in traditional skills. Commercially produced alternatives seemed more attractive than the time consuming traditionally-made quilts. Some people though continued the tradition, teaching and researching patchwork and quilting, as well as continuing to make them. This paved the way for an eventual resurgence of interest in the 1960s and '70s, and the formation in 1979 of The Quilters’ Guild. Their aim is to ensure that the traditional crafts of patchwork and quilting are passed on, and to represent the quilters taking the craft forward through the 21st century.

Perhaps because of their rich and interesting history, patchwork and quilting have again become popular in the 21st century, often using traditional skills combined with contemporary artistic techniques. Contemporary Quilt is a specialist group within the Quilters Guild working at the cutting edge of quilt making.

There are numerous quilt makers selling their wares on the internet, with both traditional and contemporary designs available. This should ensure that the popularity of patchwork and quilting continues.

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