What Makes a Quilt a Quilt?

A quilt is a type of bedding that consists of several pieces of fabric sewn together:  there is a top piece, a middle layer, and a bottom piece. The technique of sewing all the pieces together is known as quilting. Another technique for securing the layers of fabric is called tying.

Elements of a Quilt

Quilts generally have these characteristics:

  • The top layer forms a pleasing or artistic visual design
  • The pattern is often repetitive, and formed of blocks (Examples include the patchwork quilt, and classic patterns such as log cabin, and flower basket)
  • A variety of colors and fabrics are used on the top
  • The backing is selected in a fabric or color to complement the top  
  • The middle layer, or batting, gives warmth and thickness to the quilt
  • Borders and bindings are used to set off the top design, as well as to finish edges on all three layers.

Quilt Stitching Design

Quilt stitching is typically tight, small, and even. The lines of the stitching enhance and accentuate the pattern of the pieced top. In some instances, the quilting stitches are the main focus of the pieced top. Examples of this are found in whole cloth quilts, and Amish quilts, which we’ll show you in a moment.  

Beauty and Function

Quilts today are used for more than just bedding. They are used as table coverings, other elements of home decoration, and for display. Both antique and contemporary quilts are increasingly treated as forms of art.

A Thimbleful of History

What we know today as quilting is a documented part of American history dating back to the 18th Century. It has evolved over the years and has become popular in Europe, Asia, and the Pacific Basin.

It began with the practice of using scrap cloth to make covers or blankets. Several layers were stitched together for extra warmth. Made of muslin, homespun, and other bits of fabric that were “pieced” together, quilts were typically stuffed with a middle layer of wool or other material.

Tree of Life
Whitework quilt
Courtesy of Artnet.com, article by
Wendell Garrett, Garrett's Attic

Quilts very often were used to tell stories - to document hardship, and honor special occasions. Examples of this go back to pioneer days, when quilts might use scraps of clothing from a loved one who was lost on the journey westward.

Crazy Quilts

Crazy quilts were seemingly haphazard combinations of cloth and embellishments, and often used silk, lace, velvets, and embroidery, resulting in very ornate creations. They were popular in Victorian times, and remain popular for many quilters and collectors.

American quilts have always reflected the diversity of America’s origins as well. Particularly recognizable and stunning designs include Amish, African-American, Hawaiian, native American, and Mexican American populations.

Quilting circles began to form in the early 1800s. They served as social occasions as well as practical ways for pioneer women to work effectively on large quilts together.

Album quilts of the early and mid 19th century show how a single quilt combines the piecing work of many women. Often, each block told something of the personality or special event of the quilter. Individual squares were then pieced together to form a whole, and quilted.

The practice of signing quilts came about in the 19th century, as did a liking for crazy quilts, which began to appear in Victorian times.

Crazy Quilt
Magruder-Woolfolk family
Slks, velvet, and elaborate embroidery
Collection of Shelly Zegart

20th Century

Many fine Amish quilts, with surprisingly contemporary-looking designs, were made in the early 20th century. And during the Great Depression, some of the poorest rural areas in America produced beautiful quilts that remain highly collectible today.

During the later part of the 20th century, quilting saw an incredible resurgence – as a craft with wide practical applications, as decorative art, and for its unique ability to tell a story.

Technological Enhancements:

Quilting has benefited from technology, like so many other art forms. Sewing machines offer a variety of quilt-friendly stitches and capabilities, producing results much faster than doing it all by hand. Quilting software can expedite the quilting process by helping plan the overall design, and more.

Despite those technology advances, the basics of quilting remain the same. And traditional quilts continue to entice new devotees to the craft.
For more on the history of quilting see these wonderful sources:

Why is There Renewed Interest in Quilting History?

Quilting reflects this country’s social history, as well as the development and evolution of the textile industry. In addition, quilts tell historians a great deal about other aspects of American life. Quilts depict personal stories of loss and achievement, as well as political, cultural, and religious themes and symbols. They tell the stories of 18th and 19th century domestic life, and they do so in an art form that is compelling, colorful, functional, and often, communal.

Flag Quilt
Mary C. Baxter
Kearney, Hudson County, NJ
in "American Anthem Part II"
at the American Folk Art Museum

Quilts reflect political times as well as telling personal stories.
Flags, stars and red, white, and blue, are all popular themes in 19th century quilts.

Ready to learn about various types, techniques, and designs?

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