Quilt History Part 1: Quilting in Early America

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Quilting today is a popular hobby for many women (and some men, of course!) but do you know the history behind the craft? Quilting in America has a long and rich heritage, ranging from the founding of our nation to the present day. When we think of historical quilting we probably picture something along the lines of Little House on the Prairie, but the true history of quilting in America might surprise you!

History of Quilting in AmericaQuilt History Part 1: Quilting in Early America

It’s popular to think about colonial women quilting in their caps and long gowns, but actually the average early American woman would not have had enough time to quilt and they were not widely made until much later. It was a hobby for the wealthy who were able to afford to hire servants for household help, leaving the women of the house time for needlework, and even then it was not a very common activity. The quilts that were popular at this time were mainly broderie perse, which is when motifs were cut out of printed fabric and used as appliques. Printed fabric in itself was a great luxury of the time, so you can imagine that one must be very well off to be able to cut it up for quilting purposes!

broderiepersestarquiltnatalieapplAn example of a broderie perse quilt from www.uisgebeatha.org.

It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that quilting became accessible to more American families. The rise of the American textile industry meant that most people could afford to buy fabric, and quilting became a way for women to socialize – they would gather at each others’ houses and help each other finish their quilts. This is how the idea of the “quilting bee” originated, and it became especially important as Americans pushed westward and rural life on the prairie was born. Women would not have as much of an opportunity to socialize with their neighbors if they were far away, so quilting became a way to combat the loneliness of life on the frontier. Quilting was also a comforting hobby for women as they left their familiar lives behind for a new life and new adventures as they traveled west with their families.

We found this amazing information over at Womenfolk.com, a website dedicated to the history of quilting. Next week we’ll be telling you all about how quilting has evolved from the 1800s through the modern day! Until then, you can check out Womenfolk’s website for more quilt history, including how quilts were used during the civil war and how pioneers made quilts without the patterns we have today.

Does quilting run in your family?

Seams and Scissors

Seams and Scissors is a place where sewing and quilting are celebrated every day. It is a creative resource for those who both cherish these skills and those who want to acquire them. On Seams and Scissors the curious creator will find full sewing and quilting tutorials, project collections, tips and tricks, as well as endless inspiration.
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  1. Paulette D Lerberg says

    Wow, this is soooo different from the history I read in a quilting book. Their story was poor women were the first quilters and utilized old clothing. The rich ladies liked the art and started their servants on projects.
    It also stated since the poor were illerterate, much history of quilting was lost.

    Your story only confirms what I’ve learned from visiting quilt museums. Beautiful whole cloth quilts were displayed. totally out of reach of a poor woman’s purse. Enjoying the articles. Thanks, Dani

  2. says

    I have often wondered how the pioneer women ever found time to make the beautiful quilts they made. they had to work by lamp as opposed to our electricity; yet they came out with beautiful quilts!

  3. Sunnie Mitchell says

    My great-gran and gran taught me to quilt in the early 1960s, both ladies were taught by their mums and grans. They quilted because the resulting quilts were utilitarian but also decorative, and the skills handed down by generations of my frugal Scottish foremothers. They taught me no end of block combinations mixed with quilting lore and it’s lovely to see a discussion of quilting history featured here. Nearly every family has a different quilting tradition history – for some it was indeed poverty OR wealth provided freedom to use textile art, for my family it was merely an extension of our Scottish frugality. Too, ‘memory’ quilts were popular in our family and I continue the tradition today – my youngest granddaughter is about to receive a quilt featuring her late granddad’s oxford shirts, shirts I sewed for him as he didn’t think even the best store-boughts were as nice as the ones I sewed for him:)

    The two most important lessons those dearly missed ladies handed down to me were: one – always buy extra and coordinating when buying fabric so ‘left-overs’ can be pieced and quilted, and two – never-ever throw out an old blanket or towel or garment as the worn blankets and towels can be used as the middle layer of the quilt sandwich and old clothing can be cut apart to use for quilt tops.

    As a consequence, when I sew clothing (family includes four grandchildren ranging in age from 3 years to 12) I deliberately buy coordinating fabrics that will last long enough to be handed down then handed on to me for use in quilting.

  4. Anne in New Zealand says

    You do not mention here that it was the immigrants from Wales and the North of England who arrived in Americawho brought their quilting skills with them. They taught the Amish women to make quilts. The so called traditional American/ Amish quilt patterns were well known and used in the UK much, much earlier than they appeared in America

  5. Mary WIlliamson says

    I just started quilting when my third grandaughter started college and could not find the Paris theme in a blanket. Thank goodness for YouTube I had no idea what I was doing. I just finished piecing a Dresden plate quilt. It’s my 17th quilt in a wonderful learning experience year. I have made quilts for each child, grandchild and great grandchild. I hope they will pass them down as my legacy to them.

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