If you’re anything like many quilters, sometimes you wonder about the quilters who have come before you. Like, WAY before you. Sure, if you grew up in the U.S, you probably read about quilting bees in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. Of course, you know that piecing a quilt takes ages, so how did they do it back in the olden days?
From Clothes to Quilts
In the past, people didn’t have time to quilt. And by people, of course we mean women, who did the bulk of domestic work in the home. They usually were too busy spinning, weaving, and making clothes, which took ages to make in the days before sewing machines. Any modern spinner can surely appreciate the innovation that the spinning wheel must have been to women in cultures where the use of such machines took root, particularly in Europe and Asia. Most people used woven blankets in the colder regions of the world, and usually they were made of wool.
Most quilted items were actually clothing. Women’s petticoats, men’s armor padding, and children’s coats were all quilted items. Fine quilted petticoats were fashionable all over Europe for centuries. Most of the time, they were filled with wool batting. For the rich, of course, these items could be beautifully quilted by skilled seamstresses. For the poor, these garments would have been much simpler.
We know that when quilts were made, they were much more like duvets. Made of a special fabric called ticking, they were individually sewn bags that would have been stuffed with down or wool, and then stitched together one at a time.
This continued much the same until the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s made fabric much cheaper and easily accessible. The mid- to late 19th century saw a huge boom in the number of quilters, and quilting became a common social hobby for many women. Quilting bees became popular ways to pass long winter days, with women from a town gathering to work on quilts together and finish them within a day, rather than the weeks or months it woudl take one woman on her own.
Wealthy women would use expensive, rarer fabrics, while average women would use regulary cotton. However, they were still hand-quilting, which took ages. Special quilts would be made to commemmorate events such as weddings and would be made as heirloom pieces. In the late 19th century, crazy quilting was all the rage, and would be practiced mostly by wealthier or middle class women who had time for hobbies.
Some quilting traditions of note include the famous Amish quilts made by Amish women in Pennsylvania and parts of the Midwest. The Amish don’t do anything halfway, and these quilts have become a source of income in the modern world for the Amish who mostly practice subsistence agriculture. Another tradition worth mentioning is Hawaiian quilting, an intricate and exotic art form introduced to Hawaii by missionaries but perfected by Native Hawaiians and still practiced by many.
So, now you know! The history of quilting is rich and diverse, and definitely worth some more time and research, so if you’re curious and you want to know more, don’t hesitate to use this as a launching pad to dive into a full investigation of the history of quilting!