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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Little Quilt History

Sarah McNeal is a multi-published author of time travel, paranormal, western, contemporary and historical fiction. Her stories may be found at Publishing by Rebecca Vickery and Prairie Rose Publications. Her website:  

A Bit About The History of Quilts

I can’t imagine there is one among you who doesn’t know what a quilt is, but for the sake of clarity, it is the stitching together of layers of cloth with padding between that usually incorporates pieces of different colors of material to form a design. It can be simple with simple stitching, or artistic and complicated with decorative stitching, and even incorporate embroidery in the pattern of the design.
It is believed that quilting began as early as ancient Egypt.

In the United States, quilt making became a common activity during the late 18th century and early 19th century. Since commercially made blankets were economical and most women spent time to weaving and spinning clothing for their families, quilt making was a time consuming activity that only the wealthier women could lend their time to, and, therefore, only a few performed Colonial quilting.

I was surprised to learn that quilts were originally not made with scraps of material. Instead, they were decorative items made to display the quilter’s fine needlework.
Whole cloth quilts, broderie perse, and medallion quilts were a particularly popular style of quilting during the 19th century. These quilts appear to be a solid piece of fabric, but were actually strips of fabric sewn together since weaving looms were not big enough to produce a large enough cloth to cover an entire bed. They consisted of three layers: a top with a layer of padding that was often wool, and a bottom cloth. The hand sewn stitching held the layers together. In those early days, it was the stitching that was the decoration. The early American quilts came from Europe and only the wealthy could afford to buy them.

In Canton, Massachusetts, the Canton Historical Society believes they have the oldest whole cloth quilt in America made of wool in 1786 by Martha Crafts Howard.
The surviving whole cloth quilts feature natural designs like feather designs, outlines of flowers, and so on. Some quilts are made even more beautiful by incorporating stuffed and corded quilting, often termed trapunto, which is an Italian word used to describe the technique of stuffing more padding into certain areas of the design to raise up the design and distinguish it from other areas of the quilt.

 Broderie perse is a term that refers to the applique of cut out motifs from printed fabric onto a solid background. This form of quilt making has been done since the 18th century. The popular printed fabric during this period was chintz imported from India. Because printed fabric was more expensive even for the wealthy, quilters would cut out birds, flowers, and other natural designs and applique them to the plain background. These broderie perse quilts were used on the best beds in the house, or reserved for times when guests were staying over.

Medallion quilts are made around a center. The center was sometimes a solid piece of large scale fabric like a toile or a Tree of Life, an appliqued motif or a large pieced star or other pieced pattern. The central area was surrounded by two or more borders. Although some borders were solid, many were pieced or appliqued.

In the mid 19th century when the industrial revolution began, quilting changed drastically because quilters no longer had to spin and weave their own cloth. By the 1840’s, with a huge variety of fabrics readily available, quilt-making became so much easier and, therefore, more widespread. While some quilts were made from scraps of cloth from other projects, many quilts were made with fabric purchased specifically for the quilt.

Another huge development during this period was the invention and availability of the sewing machine. In 1856, the Singer Company introduced an installment payment plan that made more families able to have a sewing machine. Now women could sew their family’s clothes in less time and sew part of their quilts by machine as well.

When the American Civil War broke out, women made quilts to raise funds for the abolitionist movement, to support the war effort, and to provide warmth and comfort to the soldiers. Sometimes women would apply anti-slavery poems and sayings to the quilts they sold at fairs to show the plight of slaves. Stories came out of quilts being used to signal slaves of safe houses they could go to designated by a certain kind of quilt hung on the clothesline. Not all historians agree on this belief.
Not only were quilts used to raised money for the war effort both in the North and the South, but quilts were made for the soldiers as well. Many women remade quilts from bed covering to create two quilts from one bed cover. The quilts were distributed to the soldiers by the United States Sanitary Commission in the North. Things were more difficult in the South since, although the South raised cotton, it was milled into fabric in the North. Fabric became almost impossible for women of the South to obtain so the Southern women had to spin and weave the cloth before they could make the quilts. Both sides used practical designs for soldiers’ quilts. Sadly, due to the extreme use these quilts endured, few have survived.

There are a variety f types of quilts such as Amish quilts with their bold designs, distinctive designs and exceptional stitching, Crazy quilts that arose in the late 19th century with their abstract shapes randomly stitched together with fancy stitches, artistic quilts, and Traditional quilts made with appliqué designs, meticulous stitching, and even embroidered elaborately. Traditional quilts were created for special occasions such as weddings or when a new minister arrived. 

(example of a traditional quilt with embroidery from New Mexico)

My grandmother made a quilt for each of her grandchildren. They were very special with applique and embroidery with intricate stitching. For my oldest sister, my grandmother had appliqued women with bonnets and aprons over their dresses with a pocket. In each pocket, she placed a penny. I’m sure my sister removed all the pennies and spent them on candy. My quilt was made with kittens in baskets with embroidery and fancy stitches. My quilt met an untimely end during my fire bug period.
I used a traditional quilt in my story, When Love Comes Knocking, in the Christmas anthology from Prairie Rose Publications, Present for a Cowboy soon to be released. My widowed heroine, Penelope Thoroughgood, made a beautiful traditional quilt with the help of her mother for her some day marriage.

 (my contribution) When Love Comes Knocking

A lonely widow…an indiscretion…a gift for redemption

Penelope Witherspoon was charmed into marriage by Evan Thoroughgood only to learn she loved a philanderer, who gambled away his inheritance and drank too heavily. It came as no surprise that four months after their marriage, Evan was shot dead for cheating at cards. Since his death, Penelope has come to depend on his older brother, Gil. In fact, she has come to love and respect him. No two men could be further apart in character. But, if Gil learns of her secret indiscretion, he will want nothing further to do with her. What is Penelope to do?


“I need to be on my way as well.” Gil had already risen from his chair and put his dish and fork in the dry sink. He approached Penelope with his face expressionless. “I’ve got some things to do before I head on home and I don’t want to wait too long since a storm is headin’ this way.” He shrugged into his long, wool coat and shoved his hat on his head. “If you need anything, or the wood gets low before I get back, just send someone to tell me.”
She reached out her hand to him. “Thank you for everything you did today. It means a lot to me. I always enjoy your company.” She wanted to say more—so much more, but she had no sense of how he would react.
When he clasped her hand in his, her heart stuttered in her chest. Does he have any idea how much I care for him? “Any company is good in a storm.” 
She hated to think what he meant by that. His eyes turned dark, like black coffee, and he didn’t smile. “Your company is exceptional to my way of thinking.” What more could she say? She certainly wasn’t going to open up like a tin can and spill out all her feelings to him. If he didn’t feel the same, she would be humiliated and she didn’t want to ruin their friendship.
He still held her hand when he dipped his head toward her. For one brief moment, she thought he might even kiss her. Oh goodness, if only he would. If only
But he didn’t. She saw a light ignite in his eyes as he stared at her mouth, and then he backed away. “Thank you for the supper. You cook a fine meal. Well, goodnight, Penelope.”
“Goodnight, Gil.” She wasn’t sure he even heard her. He shut the door as she spoke. Something’s not right.

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Please Note:
All photos of quilts from Public Domain/Wickipedia
Carolyn Ducey, "Quilt History Timeline".
Levie, Eleanor; Place, Jennifer; Sehafer Sears, Mary (1992). Country Livings Country Quilts, p. 98. Hearst Books, New York. ISBN 0-688-10620-X.
 Levie, Eleanor; Place, Jennifer; Sehafer Sears, Mary (1992). Country Livings Country Quilts, p. 98. Hearst Books, New York. ISBN 0-688-10620-X.

Dunton Quilting Collection, Archives and Manuscripts Collections, The Baltimore Museum of Art.

[2005]Celia Eddy: "Quilted Planet A Source Book of Quilts from Around the World".
2004: Roderick Kiracofe, Mary Elizabeth Johnson. "The American Quilt: A History of Cloth and Comfort 1750-1950". Clarkson Potter. ISBN 1-4000-8096-7.
1994: Laurel Horton (Editor). "Quiltmaking in America: Beyond the Myths". Rutledge Hill Press. ISBN 1-55853-319-2.
1995: by Sandi Fox. "For Purpose and Pleasure: Quilting Together in Nineteenth-Century America". Rutledge Hill Press. ISBN 1-55853-337-0.

1989: Barbara Brackman. "Clues in the Calico: A Guide to Identifying and Dating Antique Quilts". Howell Press Inc. ISBN 0-939009-27-7 .


  1. Again a very interesting and informative article I love quilts but dont make them. The photos were lovely and the best with your books.

  2. Thank you, JoAnne. I actually made a baby quilt once--only once. That episode went the way of my attempt at crochet. I made a pair of slippers. One was okay, but the other was huge. I gave them to my sister and they have quietly disappeared off the earth. LOL
    I appreciate your support and kindness in dropping by and commenting.

  3. I was surprised to learn only the wealthy made quilts. That's completely opposite what I thought and believed. I grew up with different quilts on my bed. Mother was a quilter, mainly with her women's church group. But Mother made each of us certain kinds of quilts. As an 8th grader, she made an ankle length dress with tiers and puffed sleeves. It was heavy because of such fullness in the skirt. I was in a square dance group who performed for parents, etc. When I was finished with it, she cut it up and made a beautiful quilt--black background with big red roses. I had several she'd made, but when we switched to queen sized beds, those quilts were not useful. I let our son take three to MI when he went up there for graduate school. Someone stole all three from his apartment. Made me sick.
    Your Christmas story sounds wonderful--and your excerpt is good!
    I have a book titled Texas Tears and Texas Sunshine, Voices of Texas Women Pioneers. These are two quilt patterns, and two more--Lone Star and Log Cabin. The author of this book used the four quilt names to divide the 19th Century of Texas History into four parts. I've used numerous stories from that book to post on SOTW. Thanks for such a wonderful post.

    1. I surprised by that, too, Celia. I always thought quilts were made from left over scraps by women of little means.
      You could use single width quilts as throws in the winter. Double be size make good tablecloths (but I would actually eat food off one for fear of staining it.) What a shame someone stole the quilts from your son. I know how dorm living goes. My parents gave me a magnificent fountain pen and pencil with my name engraved on it for my high school graduation. Someone stole it--with my name engraved on it, no less.
      Thank you for the compliment. I don't write lengthy excerpts. I try to keep it short and at a pivotal moment.
      Don't you love that they named the quilt designs? I think that's cool.
      Thank you so much for all your kind words and for your constant support.

  4. Interesting. I have the quilts my great-grandmother made for me and I cherish them They survived the fire that destroyed my parents home, so they are a bit singed, but no less the precious.

    I also recently contributed a quilt square myself for the 20th annivesary conference of Women Writing the West organization. the quilt turned out beautifully.

    The story also sounds like another winner. Congrats. Doris

    1. Doris, I am so sorry to hear that your great-grandmother's quilts were damaged by fire, but I'm glad you kept them anyway. I regret that I didn't save the quilt my grandmother made me when I realized a couple burn holes had gotten to it from the bonfire I was playing with. It was so soon after my sister and I almost burned the house down, I was certain my parents would punish me for it.
      So, you quilt? How wonderful that you contributed a quilt square to a good cause. Your part of that quilt will be preserved for all time. Doesn't that feel great?
      Are you planning a short story in an anthology, Doris?
      Thank you for coming. You're very kind to everyone including me. I'm grateful for your generosity.

    2. Yes, I'm trying to finish up a couple of stories. Not quite sure where they will fit, but the characters want the story told. (They were just fighting over who would tell them.*Smile*

      As for the quilt square I did, it was fun. I'll post a photo if I can find one on my timeline later of the whole quilt. Doris

    3. Write the story, and the opportunity will come, Doris.
      Thank you for answering my questions.

  5. Good article Sarah! I find quilts beautiful, and I have not a drop of talent for sewing. Oh, I've done some cross-stitch, but nothing like what my grandmother used to crochet. Love the cover of the Christmas books.

    1. Connie, this cover is perfect for my story this time. Livia does a great job, doesn't she? I see you didn't enter a story for this one. Will you be entering one later?
      Doesn't it seem like so many skills ended with grandparents? Without a TV growing up, my sister and I spent a lot f time learning things from our parents and grandparents. We're still avid organic gardeners. My garden is a small raised bed, but it is good for tomatoes, cucumbers and squash--my favorites.
      Thank you for coming by and leaving a comment. I appreciate your support.

  6. Sarah, this was a lovely post. My aunt used to make quilts and I have about 6 of hers two of which are in the 'wedding ring' design. Unfortunately, she is too ill now to carry on with it, but I am proud to own them and hope to pass them on to my daughter and grandaughter. I had heard about the 'slave messages' and whether on not it is correct, its a lovely story isn't it? That's a nice excerpt, only trouble is, I now have to add that to my TBR pile!!! Thank you for a lovely post and wonderful memories.

    1. Jill, I saw where England's ladies made very fancy quilts. Oh, here is another interesting factoid--quilt making dates all the way back to Egypt B.C.
      It's a warm feeling having something like a quilt passed down through the family. It reminds us of our history and those that lived out their lives before we came along. It's a wonderful thing to have and pass on.
      I'm not sure when the anthology will release, but Christmas anthologies do well and I was glad to be a part of this one. What are you working on?

    2. Hi Sarah. Yes it does feel good doesn't it? Thanks for asking about my work, I have a new one coming out for Robert Hale next year, and have sent another one to Cheryl for consideration. I struggle to write shorts, so am sticking to novellas and longer now I think.

    3. I've written so many shorts in the last while, that I've become accustomed to writing them, but I need to focus on longer work. I also need to write something different. I feel I'm in a rut. Worse I fear that I'm just plain old stuck. I have outlines for stories western and paranormal, but I am having trouble making myself focus on one.
      Robert Hale? Who is that? I think I'm going to feel stupid for asking.

    4. Hi again Sarah, Sorry I'm late replying to your question. Robert Hale is a well respected publisher (established over 100 years ago) in London. They are responsible for keeping the Western alive in the UK as up until just a couple of years ago they were the only UK publisher to put out Westerns.They do publish other things as well, butare best known for the cowboys! They are mostly very traditional 'shoot-em-up stories and usually 40-60,00 words. They come out in board back and are in all of the UK libraries. And don't feel stupid, many Americans still haven't heard of them! Speak soon. Email me if you want to.

    5. Jill, thanks for answering my question about Robert Hale. His name even sounds western. I imagine reading a western to the English must be like reading a Regency to an American--fascinating and baffling simultaneously. LOL

  7. Sarah,
    All this info about quilts I didn't know. How interesting! When we lived in Pennsylvania we sometimes stopped to look at Amish quilts. They were so incredible. My parents purchased one once for $600, but then took it home and never used it because they didn't want to ruin it. Years later my mom finally pulled it out and put it on the bed. They have dogs, so it's undergone some wear and tear, but she realized what was the point of keeping it in the closet.
    I love your excerpt. Sounds like a wonderful story. I look forward to reading it. :-)

    1. Kristy, my family and I originated in central Pennsylvania 30 miles from Lancaster. Although I haven't lived there since I was 5, I have roots there. The Amish are very particular about what they make. Their quilts and furniture (often imitated by "English", but without the quality) are created with care, so I know your mom has a well made and beautiful quilt. I only have one quilt left from my grandmother and I do use it. Using a thing creates memories. I wouldn't let my dog sleep on it though. She has her own special bed. Your mom is right to want to put the quilt to use.
      Did you write a Christmas short story? I know you're not in this one, but maybe in another anthology? Are you burned out on anthologies for now? What are you working on?
      Thank you for your kind remark, and thank you for coming by to support me.

  8. Sarah, what a great post! I've always been fascinated by quilts, but now I probably don't have enough eyesight left to make one--and where would I find the time? It's one of those things I always said I'd love to do but life got in the way. Thanks for such an informative, interesting post!

    1. Cheryl, as much as I might love quilts, that one attempt was enough for me. I can't imagine how back when woman had no modern conveniences to free up their time, they managed to spend so much time on such a project. Of course it did involve a group of women, so I guess it was a way to socialize and exchange news bits with the neighbors. Now we go out to lunch or meet at a bar after work. LOL
      Thank you so much for finding the time to drop by and comment.

  9. Wonderful post, Sarah. I love articles about quilting, especially the history of quilting. You shared much information that was new to me. Thanks so much.

    Oh, and I can hardly wait to read your story in the Christmas anthology -- Robyn Echols writing as Zina Abbott

    1. Thank you for your comments, Robyn. I found some great pictures of quilts on Pinterest (to which I am addicted). I spent 3 hours looking at all the beautiful designs. The modern, artistic quilts were beautiful, too, with wild and crazy themes. I would have loved to have posted pictures of them, but none of us are sure about whether Pinterest is public domain or not. Bummer.
      Wishing you all the best.

  10. Sarah, thank you so much for a wonderful, interesting post. I too love quilts and even made one years ago--mine was very simple to say the least. Whew, it was harder than I thought and have never attempted another since. We have many Amish and Mennonites in our PennYan, NY area and they make quilts for themselves and to sell. The quilts are beautiful and the workmanship is superb. I can't imagine making them way back when the lighting wasn't as good as we have today. But those women did it. And I am looking forward to reading When Love Comes Knocking. Sounds terrific. My kind of story. Thanks again.

    1. Beverly, I know what you mean about making a quilt. It's painstaking work. My maternal grandmother was not Amish, but seemed to practice many of their social customs. Maybe it has something to do with being German. Anyway, she and her friends would get together and make quilts. They gossiped and told stories. On Sundays, she would make the rounds visiting and exchange her crochet and tatting for things like homemade baked goods, whirligigs, other sewn items. It wasn't like bartering as much as just gifts they exchanged. She and her friends spoke Pennsylvania Dutch. Do you live in central PA?
      I hope you get a chance to read the anthology, A Gift for a Cowboy when it's released, and that you enjoy my story in it.
      I so appreciate you coming over and commenting on my blog. Thank you so much.

    2. I live in NYS, southern tier or better known as the Finger Lakes area. We have hundreds of Amish and Mennonites who have ventured from PA and have settled here. They are a big part of our community. And yes, I'm looking forward to reading the Christmas anthology.

  11. Beverly, my maternal grandfather lived in Buffalo, NY. I loved Niagra Falls. The state of New York is so beautiful. You must love living there.