A Brief History of Patchwork and Quilting

Originating from the Latin word ‘cucita’ meaning a bolster or cushion, the word Quilt was first used in England in the 13th century. “Quilting” is usually considered to mean two layers of fabric stitched together with a thicker layer between them, although this middle layer is not essential. Early 18th century English quilting for example only used the two outer layers of fabric.
The practice of Quilting can be traced back to the Middle Ages, and was widely-practised, with examples found from Europe, the Far East and India. Quilting is also known to have been practised in Persia, Turkestan and Africa. 

The earliest quilting was used to make bed covers, the finest of which often became family heirlooms in medieval times. Later, in the Middle Ages, quilting was used for protective wear such as that worn under armour to make it more comfortable and sometimes as the top layer for those too poor to afford metal armour. It was still used to produce warm, light clothing as well.

The 17th century saw the heyday of quilting in Britain: in the early part of the century for the silk doublets and breeches worn by the wealthy, and later for petticoats, jackets and waistcoats. 

Although closely linked to quilting, patchwork is a different needlework technique, with its own distinct history. Patchwork or 'pierced work' involves sewing together pieces of fabric to form a flat design.

If quilting is often associated with warmth and protection, patchwork is more closely associated with domestic economy – a way of using up scraps of fabrics or of extending the working life of clothing. Unlike quilting, patchwork remained a predominantly domestic, rather than professional, undertaking. Not all patchwork was produced for reasons of economy, however with evidence of historic quilts using significant amounts of specially bought fabrics and these quilts have been attributed to middle-class women making these objects for pleasure rather than necessity. There was also a tradition of military quilts, sewn by male soldiers while posted overseas in the second half of the 19th century.

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s patchwork collection includes a large number of patchwork quilts from the 19th century with many quilts from this period featuring a wide range of motifs with intricate designs from biblical scenes to portrayals of world events.

Surviving examples of pre-18th century quilts are rare, although the Quilters’ Guild Collection includes the 1718 Silk Patchwork Coverlet, which is one of the earliest known patchworks. At this time, quilting was considered a professional skill while patchwork was only regarded as a ladies’ pastime. Quilted petticoats were popular for fashionable ladies daywear.

Whilst quilting and patchwork have been practised for centuries, their popularity has varied according to social changes. Styles have changed depending on the materials available and the social rank of the quilt maker. 

Quilting in the 20th century suffered from the effects of two world wars as the resultant changes in society lead to a decline in traditional skills. Commercially produced alternatives became more attractive than the time consuming traditionally-made quilts. However some people continued the tradition, teaching and researching patchwork and quilting, as well as continuing to make them. This paved the way for an eventual resurgence of interest in the 1960s and '70s, and the formation in 1979 of The Quilters’ Guild. Their aim is to ensure that the traditional crafts of patchwork and quilting are passed on, and to represent the quilters taking the craft forward through the 21st century. 

Perhaps because of their rich and interesting history, patchwork and quilting have again become popular in the 21st century, often using traditional skills combined with contemporary artistic techniques. Contemporary Quilt is a specialist group within the Quilters Guild working at the cutting edge of quilt making. 

Nowadays, fabric brands, quilt makers and retailers can be easily found online and with projects and patterns frequently shared through social media the popularity of patchwork and quilting looks set to endure.