STITCHING IT TOGETHER. The Art and History of American Quilts

STITCHING IT TOGETHER The Art and History of American Quilts Throughout history, women and sometimes men have used the art of quilting for many div...
Author: Abigayle Pitts
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The Art and History of American Quilts

Throughout history, women and sometimes men have used the art of quilting for many diverse purposes: to keep warm, to decorate their homes, to express their political views, to remember a loved one. Made by hand—often collaboratively— using familiar materials such as scraps of clothing, quilts are personal and communal, aesthetic and functional.

The word quilt is derived from the Latin culcita, meaning a padded and tied mattress. Quilting originated for its utility, as the technique produced a thicker padded fabric either for warmth or for protection. Quilting is a needlework technique involving two or more layers of fabric, usually sandwiched with padding of some sort, stitched together in a decorative pattern. It appears to have originated in Asia sometime before the first century A.D.

Regardless of quilting’s relatively modern association with America, its early roots in the Far East, Middle East, Africa and Europe are well documented. Early crusaders were known to wear quilted vests and undergarments for warmth and protection. By the early 19th century, quilting fabric to create decorative coverlets was an established folk art in the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Sweden, and Germany often with the same patchwork patterns developing independently in two countries.

Through the years, quilts have become documents of history. They are the products of their society, influenced by the culture, and the environment of the people who made them. The history of America can be seen in the history of quilts.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in America, women of all social strata made quilts and coverlets. During the heyday of quilt-making in the nineteenth century, America's increasingly mobile population was moving westward, settling in the wilderness. Easily portable, and certainly necessary, bedcovers might be some of the few decorative objects a woman had in her home. Bedcovers were often wedding gifts, or made by a young woman to take with her to her future husband's house. If that new home was distant from friends and family, a bedcover became an important keepsake from her old life.

Quilters used either whole cloth pieces to create their quilts or created patchwork designs by sewing many small pieces of fabric together. Appliqué (a process in which small pieces of fabric are sewn onto larger pieces of fabric by hand or machine) was also popular during this era. Women often met to work on quilts together. The Album Quilt (one that is assembled from individual blocks, each designed and/or executed by a different person and then stitched into a quilt by a group for presentation to a public figure or to commemorate a special occasion) and Friendship Quilt (made as a group project for one member of the group, with each participant making and signing a block) are two examples of collaborative quilting.

As both African slaves and their textiles were traded heavily throughout the Caribbean, Central America, and the Southern United States, the traditions of each distinct region became intermixed. Slaves made quilts for their plantation owners but also for themselves. Thus by the time that early African American quilting became a tradition in and of itself, it was already a combination of textile traditions. The quilts the slaves made for their own use featured bright colors, asymmetry, weave patterns, and large shapes, common to African tradition. Some were abstract while others displayed narratives about the creator's family and plantation life.

While most historians dispute the factual basis, some people still wonder if quilts played a role in conveying secret messages to slaves who traveled through the Underground Railroad in an effort to escape north to freedom. One fact is certain, the Underground Railroad did inspire northerners of that generation to create quilts which protested the injustices of slavery. Later generations would also go on to make commemorative quilts so that the history and plight of slaves would not be forgotten.

The finest American quilts of the 20th century are works of great beauty; striking design, extraordinary handwork, spectacular piecing. But beyond their appearance, these quilts tell our stories and at the same time, preserve these histories for future generations. Quilt makers have always used this medium as a means to serve intense artistic or personal expressions. Quilts hold memories, moments, and lives.

Quilt patterns vary widely, from abstract geometric designs to elaborate figurative and symbolic images which impart stories, ideas and beliefs. To this day, quilts are made and used for both functional and artistic purposes.

Through quilts, the makers speak to us all of their cultural roots and social concerns.

Heritage quilts represent the histories of individual families; the places they’ve lived and loved, the land their ancestors worked, the interests and traditions they have established and the values they hold dear. You will now be given instruction about creating a quilt block to tell that unique story about your family heritage. We will connect it to those of your classmates to create a unique Album quilt for your teacher to display and keep through the years as a memory of your time together. At left: “Tar Beach” Quilt by Faith Ringgold - 1988