To quilt is to stuff or stitch, from the Latin culcita meaning a cushion or bolster and the French, cuilte. Traditionally considered a warm bed covering made of feathery padding between layers of fabric and kept in place by lines of stitching or appliqué, typically in a decorative design.
Today we wear quilts; as coats, jackets, trousers, slippers or accessorize with quilted bags. But these are not a recent designer trend; we’ve been wearing padded clothing for centuries.
Fit for a Pharaoh: It’s thought quilting was a clothing feature of all the ancient civilisations; from the Persians and Egyptians to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The earliest known quilted garment is depicted on the carved ivory figure of a Pharaoh dating from the ancient Egyptian First Dynasty (3400 BC).
And a Chinese Empress: In early times the Chinese also used quilted cloth to make padded winter clothing, wisely reasoning that two or three layers were warmer than one. Chinese patchwork developed as a traditional technique of sewing scraps of fabric together to form artistic patterns (also known as Hundred-Families robe). Typically Chinese the patchwork designs are full of meaning and symbols and stories and were produced to bring good luck.
Holy Moly: In the 11the and 12th century Crusaders returning from the Holy Lands came home wearing quilted garments. They got the idea from their Arab enemies who wore padded clothing under their chainmail. Known as an aketon or gambeson for the body and chausses, for the legs, these were heavy and thick garments. There were good practical reasons; they protected against the discomfort of wearing chainmail and provided warmth. For soldiers without armour, they were worn as a top layer to offer some protection from arrow attacks.
Women’s work: And so medieval quilting techniques began to develop in Europe to produce clothing that was light as well as warm. Likely learnt in their roles as servants in the grander houses, women sewed quilts using a quilting frame. The finest work was used to make bed covers that became family heirlooms handed down the generations. Need for warmth during the freezing winters of the 14th century likely developed the practice further. Women made them for the home and then as their craftmanship improved, as beautiful decorations to sell to the grander houses.
Renaissance Chic: Elizabethan women, rich and poor, were taught needlework skills (a pastime Mary, Queen of Scots ‘enjoyed’ during her 20 year incarceration by Elizabeth 1). As quilting skills developed so did demand. By the 17th century it was considered the height of fashion.
Quilted silk doublets and breeches were worn by the wealthy and noble, later on came petticoats, jackets and waistcoats in silk and taffeta and satin. The desire to be seen and admired by high-society led to ever-increasingly embellished garments and new heights of artistry.
Party-on: The advent of the Singer sewing machine (1779) and the power loom for weaving loom (1785) re-invigorated sewing as a communal activity. Now wool, cotton, silk were much more available and interest resurged. Women could now make clothing for their family in much less time leaving more time for quilt making and secondly they could use their sewing machines to make all or part of their quilts. More often the sewing machine was used to piece quilts but occasionally the quilting was done with the sewing machine. Quilting was also taught at school, pupils working together on productions that were given to charity or as gifts. And families and relatives (male and female) organized regular get-togethers to produce quilts for special occasions, especially weddings.
Quilting Bees: Quilting may have come to America in the early 1700s from European colonists but it soon took on it’s own momentum and style. Life for these first settlers was tough, and poor. The quilting bee provided some much needed light relief. A lively communal event, it was a time for socializing, gossip and solidarity – their survival practically depended it on it. American quilting favoured patch-working (probably because of a paucity of material) over the European central design or medallion. By the 1800s quilting was a family tradition – and marriageable girls always made a quilt for their hope chests.
Old wives tales: superstitions says beware the too perfect quilt – it will offend God so must have an error somewhere; also wedding quilts must have at least one hear or the union will not be a happy one.
Get your quilt on:
Featured image; Rolf and Viktor bed show (2005)