"My Window and the Cat in the Corner" by Cher Delamere
Quilting is presumed to have originated thousands of years ago in the Orient. The technique was used to strengthen textiles that were fragile as well as to produce layered covers and clothing for protection against the cold.
Quilted fabric consists of three layers of cloth. The central layer is a padding of wool, cotton or other material; the layers are held together by continuous lines of stitches. It is generally believed that this technique was brought back to Europe from the Near East by the Crusaders. The soldiers, in their bulky full armor, were often defeated by a more agile enemy clad in light quilted shirts and chainmail. European quilted armor shirts quickly became popular and were usually made from linen cloth stuffed with padding.
After firearms were introduced, quilted armor shirts became obsolete, but by then the quilting technique had been adapted for the production of various utilitarian textiles such as quilted coverlets, jackets, cloaks, petticoats, vests and children’s clothes.
The fabrics used for quilting were usually linen, silk or cotton. These fabrics would be filled with carded wool or cotton, although at times simpler materials like feathers, leaves and straw were also used. Poorhouses and orphanages often had bedding made from cotton bags filled with paper.
Due to the fragile nature of textiles, it is hard to determine whether patchwork or quilting is the older technique. Patchwork is roughly defined as sewing small pieces of cloth to and onto each other. Most people use the term patchwork interchangeably for “pieced work” and appliqué.
In the past, the materials used for patchwork have included rind, husks, felt, cloth made from animal and plant fibers, leather and fur. The choice of materials depended upon what was available and who was doing the work. Frequently leftover rags and scraps were used and repurposed into bedcovers and other items.
The oldest surviving example of patchwork is an Egyptian canopy quilt from 980 BCE. In Central Asia, an example of felt appliqué in the form of a saddle blanket has been dated to the 6th-4th century BCE. In the early 20thcentury, some costly silk textiles put together in rectangular patchwork manner were discovered in India that dated back to the 6th-9th centuries CE.
Quilting, patchwork and appliqué have thrived in many forms and cultures throughout the centuries. These techniques are still popular today and are being practiced less as a necessity or tradition and more as a leisure activity and art form. It is estimated that there are about seven million quilt makers in the United States alone. Specialty shops that offer quilt-making resources and instruction can be found online and in every major city. Each year more books are published and quilts are getting more attention as an art form in museum and gallery exhibitions.
The Main Library is currently celebrating the craft of quilting and patchwork with two displays. The 5th floor is presenting the exhibit Primal Green: Environmental Art Quilts through July 30. On the 4th floor, we have made a display of some of the quilting books from the collection through June 1.
Source: The History of the Patchwork Quilt: Origins, Tradition and Symbols of a Textile Art by Schnuppe von Gwinner (Schiffer Publishing, 1988) [on order and available through Link+]