Bedcover entitled “Buildings, Animals, and Shields,” ca. 1890
Quilting dates back to at least 3400 BCE, in Ancient Egypt, though its origins are shrouded in the mists of antiquity. The word “quilt” entered the English language via the French cuilte, though its origins come from the Latin culcita (stuffed sack). This fabric art is found across numerous cultures and eras.
In the Middle Ages, knights wore quilts under their armour for comfort, and as a protective outer garment to guard the metal against the weather. As part of the cultural osmosis spawned by the Crusades, Europeans brought quilts back home in the late 11th century. Gambesons, quilted defensive jackets, were also very popular in this era.
The oldest known surviving European bed quilt, the Tristan Quilt, comes from late 14th century Sicily. A second century Mongolian quilted floor covering was discovered in 1924.
Section of Tristan Quilt
In Colonial America, quilts were typically two single big pieces of fabric with batting in the middle. Broderie perse (Persian embroidery) quilts were particularly popular in both Europe and America during this era. Printed fabrics were used to create a scene on the background fabric. This style of quilting is believed to have come from India.
Most quilts made from 1170–1800 were medallion-style, with a central ornamental panel and one or more borders. The familiar patchwork style didn’t arise till the 1770s. Early patchwork quilts often mixed fabrics, as well as large-scale with small-scale patterns. Old blankets or quilts were sometimes used as the batting.
Broderie perse quilt, U.S., 1846
Bird of Paradise quilt, 1858–63
Paper quilting became very popular in the American pioneer era. Quilters used paper for a pattern, and each piece of fabric was basted around the paper. This paper also served as an insulator. Since paper was very dear on the frontier, quilters used newspapers, catalogues, and letters from home, making it a very valuable historical resource about pioneer life.
Summer quilts used neither batting nor paper, and were only intended to keep the chill away on cooler summer evenings.
Former slave Harriet Powers’s 1886 Bible quilt
Harriet Powers’s 1898 Bible quilt
The African–American, Native American, Amish, and Hawaiian cultures all developed their own special styles of quilting. One of the most famous African–American quilters was the above-featured Harriet Powers. These two Bible quilts are her only known surviving works. A third quilt, the Lord’s Supper Quilt, may be in an unknown collection. Though Mrs. Powers was literate, it’s believed she may have used her quilts as teaching tools.
Other cultural quilting schools include the Indian and Bengali nakshi kantha (using sari threads to sew together worn-out fabric and scraps), dating back at least 500 years; the Pakistani and West Indian ralli (made from recycled and hand-dyed cotton); and Chinese patchwork (designs telling stories from Chinese folklore).
In the late 20th century, art quilting came into vogue. These quilts aren’t intended to be functional.
Hawaiian Na Kalaunu Me Na Kāhili (The Scene with Fancy), ca. 1886
Saint Anthony’s Torment, quilter Mary Catherine Lamb, photographer Christopher Rauschenberg
U.S., ca. 1860
Popular sub-styles of quilting include double wedding ring, log cabin, crazy quilting, tile, charm, friendship, Irish chain, Bear’s Paw, honeycomb (a.k.a. hexagon), Lone Star, Mariner’s Compass, biscuit, and Jacob’s Ladder.
Smaller-scale quilts can be made for babies, small children, and dolls. Other uses include quilted clothing and upholstery fabrics.
Pennsylvanian crazy quilt, ca. 1880
My character Eszter inherits an unfinished quilt in July 1945, begun by her mother and little sisters Sára and Ráhel and taken to Budapest in March 1944 by oldest sisters Rebeka and Lea. The idea was that each Kovács woman would work on the quilt, until finally Eszter came home and was able to finish the quilt. Rebeka and Lea’s former flatmate Mrs. Goldmark recovered the quilt and some other ignored or unwanted objects when she returned to the apartment after liberation.
Eszter and her older sister Mirjam work on the quilt together during their stay in France after the war, and they continue working on it in Newark, with the help of certain other female relatives. The one who finally finishes the quilt is Sára, after their 1953 reunion.
NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, each panel representing a loss of human life