Quilting: Woman’s Work…Woman’s Joy

by Marianne Stillings

“When I was about four years old the neighbor’s baby died, and all the women was called in to help. Mama knew what her part was because right away she took some blue silk out of her hope chest. I remember that silk so well because it was special and I got to carry it. When we got to the neighbors some of the women was cooking and the men was making the casket. Mama and three other women set up the frame and quilted all day. First they quilted the lining for the casket, and then they made a tiny little quilt out of the blue silk to cover the baby.”

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Stitches in Time – A Brief History of Quilting

As with the wheel, no single individual can be credited with the “invention” of quilting; it simply appears in human history about 5,000 years ago. Quilt historians have found traces of quilted garments on Egyptian mummies dating back to 3,000 B.C. If quilting existed before that time, there is simply no way to know.

In ancient Chinese, Russian, and Mesoamerican Indian cultures, quilted attire was worn for warmth as well as protection. Most every civilization throughout history has employed some form of quilting in either garment-making, decor, or functional coverlets. Whether these cultures learned of quilting through friendly trade, unfriendly invasion, or whether each developed its own form independently, is not clear.

Quilting was introduced to Europe in the 11th century when English and French Crusaders, venturing into the Holy Land, encountered Saracen foot soldiers who wore straw-filled, quilted canvas shirts in lieu of armor. Saracen horsemen used quilted silk undershirts to keep their armor from chafing. The European Crusaders took the idea home with them where it was used in sleepwear and undergarments. As apparel quilting became more refined, delicate patterned stitching could be found on coats, caps, and petticoats.

The first written record of non-garment quiltmaking dates from the 12th century. Having been made of perishable materials, few of these early quilts have endured. The earliest surviving example of such a quilt is of embroidered, coarse linen which dates from the 15th century. The earliest surviving patchwork quilt is from 17th century England – the Levens Hall Quilt – made of imported Indian chintzes. Because of the rich and vivid hues the English were unable to produce at that time, colorful Indian chintz was very popular and much in demand. The intricate detail of the Levens Hall Quilt indicates that it was not the first of its type.

Quilts were introduced to America by Dutch and English colonists early in the 17th century and were predominately appliqué. Other immigrant cultures – Irish, Scots, Welsh, French, Russian, Scandinavian among them – brought their own special blocks and piecing patterns when they sailed for America.

The beloved patchwork quilt, of which there are countless variations, reached its highest artistic development in 19th century America. Sewing materials were scarce and with a need for artistic expression, pioneer women lavished great attention on ingenious designs. Many of these women had no education and no understanding of mathematics, yet they were able to create incredibly intricate repeated geometric patterns that were astonishing accomplishments under the circumstances.

Work-weary women who had no other outlet for their quiet intelligence and creativity put everything they had into the quilts they fashioned. There was such pride of accomplishment that for the first time in history, many quilts were signed and dated, giving quilt historians a glimpse of time, place, personality, and the reason a special quilt was crafted.

By 1883, nearly all Americans had quilts on their beds. However, with the advent of inexpensive machine-made bed coverings, the art of quiltmaking declined in the early 20th century except in rural areas of the country. Then, in the 1960’s, an interest in quilting – both as a hand-craft and as an art form – experienced an incredible revival. Their labors no longer considered merely quilts, the products of today’s quiltmakers are termed fabric art, as well they should be.

Quilts in America

“I was dreaming on havin’ all kinds of pretty things in my home after I married. Well, I found out right quick that livin’ out on a farm, what with all the chores that had to be done, a person didn’t have a whole lot of time for makin’ pretty things.”

Today when we think of quilts, we envision bedspread-type coverlets made of two layers of cloth, between which is sandwiched a layer of stuffing or batting. The entire “quilt sandwich” is then top-stitched by hand or machine to hold the layers in place, the quilting stitches often creating an intricate and distinctive design.

True enough. However, the art of quilting has grown to include lap robes, decorative wall hangings, pillows, table-cloths and -runners, comforters – some featuring designs so lovely, they truly take your breath away. New techniques for cutting and piecing have allowed fabric artists to create landscapes, watercolor /wp-content/uploads/oldsiteimages, and portraits of such detail, a 19th century Nebraska farm-wife would be astonished. She would also be proud of her own contribution to what has become the most popular form of needlecraft in the world today.

But not only poor farm women and pioneers made quilts. Wealthy women in the East made them, not out of necessity, but for love of the work and the satisfaction they received in creating a thing of beauty. Quilts such as these were fashioned in Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, and Georgia and were made of silk, satin, velvet, and occasionally, fine cotton or linen. They were primarily appliquéd or whole cloth quilts and were made expressly for a young bride’s marriage bed, or upon the birth of a child, or as a special gift to a family member or dear friend.

As families traveled westward, so did quilts. Since opportunities to purchase bolts of fabric were few and far between on the trek west, pioneer women took cast-off clothing and cut it into small pieces, strips, scraps, or patches. With a needle-and-thread, they hand sewed these pieces together, incorporating their favorite designs and colors to make interesting and aesthetically pleasing pattern-blocks. They sewed these blocks together to make the top of the quilt, thereby creating something viable and whole where only useless fragments had been before.

Once settled in a dugout or a farmhouse on the vast and lonely prairie, fabric was still difficult to come by, so not only old clothing was used, but old bedding, grain sacks, any material they could scrounge, including pieces from older, worn-out quilts. When the grain companies realized what these women were doing, they began making their sacks more colorful, even going so far as to print quilt patterns on cotton flour sacks.

The Quiltmaker’s Art

“My husband tells about the time he got sick with the measles. He was six years old. His mother set him to piecing a quilt and every other block he set in a red polka-dot pattern. Said it was his measles quilt. He wouldn’t like me to tell it now I know. But lots of cold nights when I’m at the quiltin’ frame on one side of the fire, he pulls his big old chair up on the other side and cuts pieces for me. He’s even done a bit of piecin’ from time to time. It’s a sight, that big old long-legged man with his boot toes turned in to make a lap to do his piecework on.”

Quilting is a multi-step process, only the last step of which can be considered “quilting.” Basically, here’s what happens-

1. The quilter chooses a design and buys fabrics (generally 100% cotton, but silks and other high-quality fabrics can be used) of various colors and shades (light, medium, dark) to best reflect the look and mood she wants reflected in her quilt.

2. The fabrics are washed and checked for color-fastness; the fabric swatches are then ironed.

3. Paper or plastic templates are used to cut out the required number and shape of pieces.

4. Piecing: This is where the quilter either by hand or machine, sews the pieces together to make a block. After each section is assembled, she presses the fabric and checks to make sure the fabric has not been distorted by sewing or pressing.

5. Assembling the blocks: Once the blocks are all completed, she sews them together, pressing as she goes, adding other fabric strips or blocks to make a border around the basic quilt-top. This finished top is then carefully pressed and set aside.

6. A backing fabric is chosen, washed, pressed and cut or pieced to be several inches larger all-around than the finished top.

7. Batting is cut to about the same size as the backing, maybe a little larger, since the quilting process will seem to make the batting and backing “shrink” as quilting takes place.

8. Basting: The backing is laid out, right-side down and the batting is placed carefully on top of it. Then the pieced top is placed, right-side up, onto those two layers, creating a “sandwich.” The quilter then uses long basting stitches to keep the layers in place (pins and plastic tacs can be used as well).

9. Quilting: This is the only part of the project than can truly be called quilting. This is what makes a quilt a quilt. Depending on the size of the project, quilting can be done by holding the quilt in your lap, or, if it’s larger than a small lap robe, it needs to be placed on a quilt frame of some sort (basting or pinning can be done on a frame as well). The quilter draws or in some way imprints the quilting pattern she wants on the top and lets the lines guide her as she hand-quilts the layers together (this can also be done on a machine, but many quilters are purists and enjoy the process and take pride in the beauty of their hand-quilting).

While hand piecing can be done virtually anywhere, quilting cannot. To be properly done, the fabric must be held taut while quilting, so a large embroidery hoop or quilt frame is required. Finish-quilting is time-consuming, cumbersome and sometimes confusing work; most projects are far too large and bulky to carry around, so finish-quilting is generally an at-home activity. When assembled, a quilt-frame can take up most of a room, so, during good weather, many women set up their frames outdoors.

When the entire project has been quilted, the excess backing is trimmed and turned to make a finished edging around the quilt. An alternate method of binding is to sew a strip of complimentary-colored fabric around the entire piece.

These steps are a simplification of the many ways in which a quilt can be put together, but are an example of quilting basics that in some way must be accomplished in order to produce a finished quilt.

The Quilting Bee

The quilting bee was an important social event for colonial and pioneer families. There was usually only one heated room in their small houses, and assembling a quilting frame during the winter when everyone was indoors made the room too crowded. So the women did their piecing in front of the fire during the dark cold months, then when the weather warmed up a bit, the surrounding neighbors were all invited to come over for an all-day quilting bee. The social value of quilting bees was such that only religious gatherings surpassed them in terms of importance and attendance.

The women would arrive early and begin marking the quilt top which had already been put into the frame by the hostess. The lines were marked with a pencil, and very often, household objects such as plates, thimbles, and tea cups were used as patterns. During the course of the day, gossip and local events were discussed ¾ who was with child, who had lost a child, how the crops were doing and so forth. The quilt had to be finished before the men arrived in the late afternoon. The hostess provided a hearty meal for everyone, after which there was often a square- or country-dance accompanied by fiddle music.

Quilt Blocks – What’s in a Name?

They do not make them anymore, for quilts are cheaper at the store
Than woman’s labor, though a wife men think the cheapest thing in life.
But now and then a quilt is spread upon a quaint old walnut bed,
A crazy quilt of those days that I am old enough to praise.
Some woman sewed these points and squares into a pattern of life’s cares;
Here is a velvet that was strong, the poplin that she wore so long,
A fragment from her daughter’s dress, like her, a vanished loveliness;
Old patches of such things as these, old garments and old memories.

And what is life? A crazy quilt – sorrow and joy, and grace and guilt,
With here and there a square of blue for some old happiness we knew;
And so the hand of time will take the fragments of our lives and make
Out of life’s remnants, as they fall, a thing of beauty, after all.

Baltimore Album, Friendship, Crown of Thorns… Star of Bethlehem, Rising Star, School House…Mariner’s Compass, Tumbling Blocks, Sawtooth…Tree of Life, Flower Basket, Crazy, Anvil, Flying Geese… Whig Rose, World Without End…Virtually every one of the thousands of quilt top patterns, quilting blocks and their variations, have names… names that are deeply rooted in America’s history. Strong biblical influences, pioneer hardships, and aspects of everyday life can be found in quilt pattern names such as Jacob’s Ladder, Log Cabin, and Churn Dash. Many quilt patterns have several different names depending on which part of this vast country you are in. The following are some of the more popular block names and their histories.

Linsey-Woolsey Whole Cloth Quilts

One of the earliest fabrics used in the Colonies was linsey-woolsey. The name comes from the village of Linsey in Sussex, England and the fabric consists of a linen (or sometimes cotton) warp and a wool weft. Flax was an abundant crop in 17th century America; linsey-woolsey was a strong and durable fabric. These were generally whole-cloth quilts (no piecing, just a single sheet of fabric where the quilt design is the central interest). As these quilts wore out, usable sections were sewn into other quilts.

The Humility Block

This block was purposely pieced incorrectly and usually placed in the lower-right section of a quilt. The belief behind the Humility Block was that only God was perfect, therefore a woman could not/should not produce a perfect quilt. Later, it was said that if a bride made a perfect quilt for her marriage bed, the marriage would be an unhappy one. (Myths and stories surrounding quilts and quiltmaking abound, and are fascinating subjects unto themselves.)

Trapunto Quilting

Trapunto originated in Italy in the early 16th century and remained popular in America until the Civil War. Trapunto is a whole-cloth quilting technique which produces a raised surface on the quilt. The patterns usually consist of vines, leaves, and grapes, which are often accentuated by slitting the side of a “grape” and stuffing it with a small amount of batting to produce a rounded effect.

Drunkard’s Path

This winding and turning quilt pattern became popular in the late 19th century as the Temperance movement went into full swing. Many women expressed their affiliation with this group in their quilts and used predominently blue and white fabrics – the colors that represented the Temperance movement.


A Nine-Patch was generally the first quilt a little girl learned how to make. Small, sincere fingers clutching a needle-and-thread discovered the basics of piecing by stitching diminutive squares together into simple Nine-Patch blocks. These blocks were usually assembled into a doll quilt to be used and loved for years to come. The Nine-Patch appeared in America around 1825 as a result of the great technological advances that made roller-printed fabric possible. More fabrics were available in more colors than ever before, and quiltmakers were the first to take advantage of that fact.

Amish Quilts

When the Amish (mostly from Switzerland and the Netherlands, Germany and Austria) immigrated to America in the 18th century, quiltmaking was not among the skills they brought with them. But they learned from their neighbors and quickly established themselves as quiltmakers without equal. Amish quilts combined solid colors with familiar block patterns to create stunning patterns whose shapes and styles closely reflected the culture and simplicity of Amish life. The vibrant colors they were able to achieve were a result of the woolen fabrics they used – fabrics which absorbed bright dyes beautifully. These rich colors appeared even more dazzling to the eye when placed against a traditional black background.

Wedding Ring and Double Wedding Ring Quilts

No other quilt carries with it the romance and promise of everlasting love than the Double Wedding Ring. This uniquely American quilt pattern first appeared sometime around the beginning of the 20th century and has remained popular to this day. The graceful curves and interlocking rings carry with them hopes for a happy marriage, a healthy family, a long life. Any bride would have been thrilled to receive a hand-made Wedding Ring quilt on her wedding day.

The Log Cabin Quilt

While it would seem that the Log Cabin quilt is a strictly American design, quilt historians have found Log Cabin-type swatches on Egyptian mummies, and a very early English Log Cabin quilt that predates 1830. Sometime just after the Civil War, Log Cabin quilts began appearing in America. They became so popular, the humble Log Cabin was the most widely made design in the country until the beginning of the 20th century. It remains very popular today.

Constructed around a central square which has symbolic meaning, the rest of the “cabin” is built in strips of alternating dark and light fabric around this square. The Log Cabin pattern represents the shadowy sorrows that contrast with the bright joys of life. Once pieced, the blocks are arranged to form a variety of different top patterns: Barn Raising, Chimneys and Cornerstones, Straight Furrows, Sunshine and Shadow, Courthouse Steps.

If the central square of the block was red, this symbolized the fireplace or hearth – the heart of the home and family, around which the rest of the “cabin” was built. If the square was yellow, it represented a beacon shining for a loved one who was missing, a light-in-the-window for a traveler wished home. If the square was black, the Log Cabin quilt took on a whole new meaning.

There has been conjecture for years that the Underground Railroad used quilts to fool slave-hunters and to help escaped slaves find their way to Canada. A black center square in a Log Cabin quilt meant that the house on whose clothesline the quilt was hung, was a way-station in the Underground Railroad. Some quilts had knots tied in them so the pattern could be used as a map to indicate other houses, roads, friendly folks who would help the frightened travelers on their way. Though this theory has been contested, I tend to believe it’s true – given what I know about how smart women are, and how clever.

On a Personal Note

I taught myself how to quilt. No one in my family quilted, but it was something I wanted to do ever since I could remember. My initial efforts wouldn’t have won any prizes, but the people to whom I gave my quilts seemed very pleased to receive them.

Quilts are more than simply fabric and thread and something pretty to look at. When you give the gift of a quilt you’ve made, you are giving someone the month or the winter or the year it took of your time to create. You have thought of the colors they would like, you have taken the time to cut and piece and quilt the gift, and then, you have found the courage to give so much of yourself away.

Before my mother died, I made her a lap quilt – she was frail and took a chill easily. When I had finished it, I turned it over and placed my right hand on the corner of the backing. I traced around my hand with a permanent pen, then wrote the title of the quilt, and for whom the quilt had been made. I signed and dated it and sent it off to her, a thousand miles away.

My mother told me that whenever she felt lonely, or far away from me, she would turn over the edge of that quilt and place her own hand on top of mine. In that way, the miles between us seemed not so distant. In that way, we were connected. In that way, we were touching. My quilt was covering her when she died.

When you gift someone with a quilt, you are not only giving them a thing of beauty, one of practicality and warmth, you are expressing your love for them. As any quilter knows, quilts are never given lightly. My mother is gone now, and I again have the quilt I made for her. I touch it sometimes, knowing she touched it, and in that way, we are not parted after all.

“I’m eighty-three and I’ve done a heap of quilts, girl. But I remember, like it was yesterday, my first quilt – Mama was a beautiful quilter – I always longed to work with her and I can tell you how plain I recall the day she said, “Sarah, you come quilt with me now if you want to.” I was too short to sit in a chair and reach it, so I got my needle and thread and stood beside her. I put that needle through and pulled it back up again, then down, and my stitches were about three inches long. Papa come in about that time, he stepped back and said, “Florence, that child is flat ruinin’ your quilt.” Mama said, “She’s doin’ no kind of a thing. She’s quiltin’ her first quilt.” He said, “Well, you’re jest goin’ to have to rip it all out tonight.” Mama smiled at me and said, “Them stitches is going to be in that quilt when it wears out.” All the time they was talkin’ my stitches was gettin’ shorter. That was my first quilt. I have it still to look at sometimes.”


  • The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art – An Oral History, by Patricia Cooper and Norma Bradley Allen, 1989, Doubleday.
  • The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt in America, “A Crazy Quilt,” by Douglas Malloch.
  • The Classic American Quilt Collection: Nine Patch, A Rodale Quilt Book, 1994.
  • The Classic American Quilt Collection: Amish, A Rodale Quilt Book, 1996.
  • The Classic American Quilt Collection: Wedding Ring, A Rodale Quilt Book, 1995.
  • The Classic American Quilt Collection: Log Cabin, A Rodale Quilt Book, 1994.

Marianne Stillings wrote this article when she was an AAR editor/senior reviewer. She is now published by Avon.


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