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Quilt History

The word "quilt" is derived from the Latin word culcita, which means a stuffed sack, mattress, or cushion. A quilt is a bedspread or blanket made of two layers that is filled with a material, such as cotton, wool, feathers, or down, and is stitched together, usually in a decorative design.

Historians credit both China and Egypt with the origins of quilting. The earliest reference to quilting is found in an Egyptian ivory carving of a pharaoh wearing a quilted mantle dating from 3400 B.C. Some interpret the mantle depicted in the statue to be a true quilt while others say it depicts a mantle with a woven pattern, but not a quilt.

In the 11th century, the Crusaders, intrigued by the quilted jackets worn by their Arab adversaries to serve as armor, found these quilts to be much lighter and easier to wear in the heat of battle, and more protective than leather underneath their chain mail. When the Crusaders brought these quilted jackets back to Europe, they eventually were adapted to be used as bedding.

The earliest known bed quilt is from the 14th Century in Sicily. Known as the Triastam Quilts, these were originally made for a wedding gift to a pair of Sicily's aristocracy and are so beautiful in design they could have been used as wall hangings.

There are references to quilts in English literature as early as the 1500's. Andrew Boorde, an English physician born in 1490, writes in his "Compendynus Regyment or a Dyetary of Health", a treatise stressing the importance of sanitation and diet for good health, "…and this, I do advertise you, to cause to be made a good thick quilt of cotton, or else of pure flocks or of clean wool, and let the coverings of it be of white fustian…".

The oldest known wholly intact quilt in Britain dates back to 1708. This quilt, now displayed in the Levens Hall in Cumbria, is part of a collection of bed furnishings which includes bed hangings and curtains.

Quilt making was introduced to America by European settlers. The earliest known intact quilt is the Saltonstall quilt, made in 1704. The date of this quilt is known because the local newspaper was used as the intermediate layer of this quilt!

The early nineteenth century saw a major boom in quilt making. This was the beginning of the "Pioneer Era" with settlers moving west and developing new frontiers. The popular "Country Fairs" began to appear, where quilt makers could receive prizes for their valuable quilts. Also popular during this time was the "Quilting Bee", an important social event in which colonial women would gather early in the morning for an all-day quilting session. In the evening, dinner was served for all the hard working quilters and their husbands, followed by a night of square dancing. As the textile industry developed, more fabrics were available to quilt makers, making it easier than ever to make big and beautiful quilts. New quilt designs were introduced; in fact, most patterns found in today's quilts were developed during this period.

Though there was a decline in quilt making during the early twentieth century, the Great Depression brought with it a resurgence of quilt making, primarily as an inexpensive way to keep warm. Like their name implies, "feed sack quilts" were made from the sacks of flour and feed.

Today, quilts enjoy a newfound popularity with books, magazines, television shows, and internet sites all dedicated to the art of quilt making. Quilting guilds and quilting conventions are also popular. A 2003 "Quilting in America" survey reports that 15% of U.S. households are involved in quilting. There are over 21 million quilters in the U.S., which means a 50% increase from the numbers reported in 1997. The survey also found that the average quilter spends $139.70 on quilting.


There are many different uses for quilts. While early quilts were used primarily as protection from hash winters and cold nights, quilt making soon became an art form, so much so that some quilts are intended for wall coverings or display, not as bed coverings at all. Some collect quilts as a means of connecting with the past, seeing in these old quilts traces of their ancestors.

Another popular use of quilts is as a means of expressing political ideas or memorials. For example, during the Civil War, quilts with little black squares in the middle were hung outside to signify the building was a safe house for the Underground Railroad. A modern example of how quilts are used as a remembrance to honor the memory of people is the AIDS Memorial Quilt, an enormous memorial to those who have died from AIDS.

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RSS | September 18, 2019

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