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

Ancient Patchwork Around the World

~ a history of piecing and appliqué ~

While the British and Europeans tend to define patchwork as the sewing together of different pieces of fabric in America's past it often meant appliqué. In this article I will be referring to the history of both techniques, for both are far more ancient ways of creating decorative items than most of us have ever imagined. It is impossible to get to the very beginning, as textiles are fragile things compared to pottery and stonework. But we do know of some fascinating examples of early patchwork.

"An Egyptian canopy quilt from 980 B.C. is generally regarded as the oldest surviving example of an antique patchwork. It was used on festive occasions by an Egyptian queen, and consists of squares of dyed gazelle leather sewn together and decorated with symbols." 1

central Asian patchwork

Another early example, though not quite so old as the one above, is a 5th Century B.C. saddle blanket with felt appliqué from Central Asia.2 This and other similar textiles survived because of a remarkable condition of climate. They were found in graves where they had been preserved by permafrost making it possible for leather, furs and felt to survive.

Patchwork even played a role in ancient Buddhism. Alter hangings have been found in the Cave of a Thousand Buddha's in India.3 One is estimated to be from the 6th to 9th century AD and is made of squares and rectangles of silk, possibly from torn pieces of travelers clothing left as votives. Some monks assembled their habit by patching together scraps of cloth as a sign of their commitment to poverty. A painting done in the 14th century depicts a Taoist figure wearing such a coat of patches.4 Moslem religious leaders have also worn patchwork garments.

Nomadic people of the desert have long pieced together their tents and even decorated them with elaborate appliqué. Bedouin women wove narrow strips of cloth then sewed them together for tents. Turkish tents were known for their decorative appliqué. Examples exist from the 17th century. In West African festival tents or pavilions were covered with symbolic appliqué showing animals and warriors as symbols of power with some surviving examples dated in the 1800s.

patchwork of western India and PakistanFestive patchwork textiles created for special occasions occur many places throughout Asia. Pieced and appliquéd household items are found in India and Pakistan made by Muslim women for dowries. These objects include decorative bags, pillows and sitting mats. To the right you see an example of a pattern similar to that used to make a cover for dishes from western India. This pattern, often called Around the World in America, is a great example of how universal patterns like this can be. 5

In Europe patchwork was less common but appliqué played a part in religious textiles. Beautiful church related hangings have survived from the 15th century. An exquisite hanging of Christ's family tree named "Roots of Jesse" from Lower Saxony is dated in the late 14th century.6

Patchwork has long been used to make decorative clothing. Because most clothing is used until it is worn out most of the existing examples are from the 19th century and later. Even leather has been used for both pieced clothing and appliquéd embellishments. Interesting surviving items include a winter coat of fur with a decorative border of tiny squares and triangles constructed with pelts of contrasting colors from Siberia, a chieftains leather patchwork garment from Liberia and a delightful woman's fur coat from Slovakia with floral motifs appliquéd with felt & leather.7

Examples of pieced fabric garments range from an intricate jacket and wedding skirt from China to Japanese items of clothing composed by piecing or decorated with appliqué.8 In America the Seminole Indians made handsome shirts and skirts in patchwork patterns.

As you can see the development of patchwork both that of piecing in a pattern or adding beauty with appliqué is an international affair.

© 2004 Judy Anne Breneman (Do not reproduce this article without permission from the author)


1 p 19, The History of the Patchwork Quilt: Origins, Traditions and Symbols of a Textile Art
by Schnuppe von Gwinner

2 p 21, Ibid.

3 p 22, Ibid.

4 p 20, Ibid.

5 pp 34-38, Ibid.

6 pp 55-59, Ibid.

7 pp 42-47, Ibid.

8 pp 40 & 45, Ibid.

Website Resource:

The History of Quilting includes pictures and some information about early quilting.

[ Traditional French Quilting | French Quilting Revival | Dutch Patchwork Skirts ]
[ Medieval & Renaissance Quilting | Ancient Patchwork ]