To the surprise of some, quilting can be described as an ancient art. The word “quilt” can be traced back to Latin, and means “stuffed sack.” The ancient Egyptians and Chinese made the first quilts, where they stitched together three layers of fabric to increase the blanket’s warmth. This idea was applied to clothing and padding beneath suits of armor in Europe. When the first settlers arrived in North America – the Dutch and English – quilting as we recognize it today took off.
The winter in North America was brutal, so making warm blankets was crucial to survival. Quilting was part of daily life, and because their other tasks took so long, the women of the colonies focused on functional quilts that had little beauty. Quilting was cheaper than buying new blankets, and women quickly figured out how to make quilts with patches of fabric they had lying around. When a quilt wore out, they just quilted it into another blanket. These patchwork quilts were handed down through the generations and became treasured heirlooms.
Quilting continued to be common up until the 1950’s and 1960’s. The United States were doing better economically, and quilting became more associated with the hard times of the Great Depression and earlier. In the 1970’s and ‘80’s, trends shifted back to where younger generations realized the importance of preserving older traditions. Despite this interest in “going backward,” the quilting landscape would be much different.
Technology changed quilting forever. The sewing machine took over jobs that once had to be done by hand, so detailed and complex patterns became much easier and faster. Modern quilters make patterns in bulk using rotary cutters, which has birthed the modern quilting movement. Today, quilting is a 3.58 billion dollar industry.
What about quilting is appealing to modern generations? Recycling is a big part of it, as quilting has always been associated with being thrifty and creative about reusing fabrics or even materials like recycled plastic bottles. Maintaining a connection to the past is also very important to modern quilters, and each quilt represents a story that can be traced hundreds of years.