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

Medieval & Renaissance Quilting

by Lisa Evans ~ Independent Scholar, Massachusetts

The popular image of the quilt is of the quilt as modern, calico, and American. The problem with this familiar stereotype is that it doesn't go far enough. Quilted garments padded Crusader mail, quilted linens adorned Renaissance bedchambers, and quilted Evangelists were treasured at 15th century monasteries. The evidence is scattered and sometimes hard to recognize, but quilts and quilting were hardly alien to pre-colonial Europe.

The word quilt is derived from the Latin culcita, meaning a padded and tied mattress. Quilting is a needlework technique involving two or more layers of fabric, usually sandwiched with padding of some sort, stitched together in a decorative pattern.

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The first known quilted object is a quilted linen carpet dating from that time found in a Siberian cave tomb. Whether the technique originated in Siberia or not, quilted objects such as a linen slipper began cropping up along the Silk Road between Asia and Europe between the 6th and 9th centuries.

Quilting does not appear to have been done in Europe much before the 12th century, and is usually thought to have been brought back from the Middle East by the returning Crusaders. Bed quilts are mentioned in two medieval poems, the 12th century La Lai del Desire and the 13th century Parzival. There is also a reference in a French inventory of 1297 to a ship captain in Marseilles owning a courtepointe or quilt.

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Quilted clothing and armor began to appear in the 14th century, much of it made by armorers' guilds in Italy. The first surviving European quilts are three trapunto quilts made in Sicily in the late 14th century. All show scenes from the Tristan. A similar quilt is shown in Bartolomeo Bermejo's 1450 painting The Death of the Virgin, while a Provencal inventory of 1426 mentions linen bedcovers worked "in the style of Naples."

The Renaissance brought increased trade with the East. Indian cotton quilts and quilted palampores were wildly popular in Portugal, while silk quilts from the Mediterranean island of Chios were used throughout Europe. Quilting became very popular among aristocratic circles, with quilts showing up in inventories in Wales, Italy, France, and England. Henry VIII's household inventory of 1547 lists literally dozens of "quyltes" and "coverpointes" among the bed linens, mainly of "holland cloth," (cotton or linen), "bockeram" (cotton)," silk ("sarceonett" and "tapheta") and "lynnen." The most intriguing entry, possibly referencing a quilt made for Henry's first wedding, describes a quilt of green silk quilted with gold or copper thread and backed with linen, with a central medallion of roses and pomegranates.

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It may be hard to see the medieval roots of modern quilting, but there are faint traces of the past in 21st century wholecloth quilts. Modern quilters may use cotton instead of linen, and a running stitch instead of a back stitch, but the floral and abstract designs would be familiar to any Renaissance needleworker.

2003 Lisa Evans (Do not reproduce this article without permission from the author.)


Additional Information:

A Short Introduction to Pre-Colonial Quilting, by Lisa Evans, Independent Scholar, Massachusetts
Find more extensive information on Medieval & Renaissance Quilting from Lisa Evans. This paper is based on her class notes for her "Historic Deerfield" symposium presentation.

Silk Quilt in the Late Renaissance Style
Thanks to Lisa Evans for permission to use the above pictures of the Renaissance reproduction quilt she made. Lisa is involved in Renaissance reenactment as Sarah Davies.

Thanks to retrokat.com for permission to use the above woodcut graphic.

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