Patchwork From the Past
Scraps of Fabric, Sewing & Quilting History

Quilts: From Ancient Egypt to America's Shore

~ quilting wasn't always used for bedcoverings ~

Somehow we have inherited this myth of early Colonial women sitting by their firesides making quilts. We idealize their lives with images of quilting bees and cozy handmade bed quilts. It seems as if quilting was invented by these immigrants to the New World. The truth of it all is far different.

Quilting has a long history evolving from Ancient Egypt through the Middle Ages not only in Europe but also in many other cultures. During these periods quilting appears to have been used primarily for clothing. As few fabric items survive over so many years historians have turned to sculptures, paintings and literature to learn about these periods. It appears likely that quilting was brought to Europe through the Crusades. The victorious Muslims wore tightly quilted clothing as part of their armor and this was soon adopted by medieval European soldiers.

find  this book at However there are rare examples of earlier quilted panels. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has a Sicilian wall hanging portraying the legend of Tristan. This beautiful piece of art was made using quilting with trapunto (stuffed quilting) on solid white fabric. It is estimated to have been made about 1395.

During the 17th century in southern France making decorative petticoats and other clothing became a popular folk art. These lovely crafted pieces were heavily quilted with floral and geometric designs. The petticoats were not hidden, instead the dresses were draped in such a way that the beautiful quilted petticoat could be seen across the front of the skirt. Quilted bedcoverings using both cording and stuffing of motifs were made as well. During the festival of Corpus Christi these beautiful white quilts were hung out of windows to honor the religious procession.

Quilted articles of clothing became fashionable in England as well. Quilted draperies and bed hangings were both a decorative and functional way to keep damp English bedchambers warm. Although fine quilting was a sign of affluence the sewing together of layers for warmth was done by the poor as well. If one couldn't afford carded wool or cotton to sew between the layers old blankets, clothing or even feathers, straw or leaves could be used instead. In English orphanages and poorhouses one form of crude bedcovering was made by sewing paper into cotton bags.

From this heritage immigrants brought quilting to America. Women of the landed gentry quilted lovely whole cloth quilts. They also imported the craft of appliquéing motifs from printed chintz onto solid fabric. Meanwhile quilting was far from the minds of ordinary women who spent their days spinning, knitting and sewing just to keep their family in clothing. It wasn't until production of affordable textiles in the mid 19th century that these woman began to have time to quilt. But the early seeds of America's love of quilting had been planted.

© 2001 Judy Anne Johnson Breneman (Do not reproduce this article without permission from the author)


The History of the Patchwork Quilt by Schnuppe von Qwinner

Related articles by Lisa Evans, scholar on the origins of quilting:

Medieval & Renaissance Quilting

A Short Introduction to Pre-Colonial Quilting

International Quilt Study Center timeline of early quilting:

Quilt History Timeline Pre-History - 1800

[ 17th Century Samplers | Calamanco Quilt | Colonial Bedrugs ]
[ Colonial Women | Colonial Quilting | Quilting Pre America ]