History of Patchwork Quilts

Out of the last decade, one of the better things to emerge has been the rekindling of interest in recycling and inevitably the decor that goes with it Shaker - the early American Quaker lifestyle, which was prudent and fairly spartan, coming as a welcome relief after overdosing on designer-label mania.

It may be thought that patchwork - a very important part of the Shaker lifestyle - is a throwback to the 60s, but it has a lot more interest and depth than recent culture, though it's true that, largely due to the flower-power predilection, patchwork did enjoy a renaissance forty years ago. Like most ideas borne of necessity, the patchwork quilt was the fruit of handsome invention, crossing the ocean with the Pilgrim Fathers who emigrated to America.

They could take very little, but bed furniture was always included in anticipation of cold winters ahead. They survived - just - and the land was eventually conquered.

The early settlers were poor and could not replace essential possessions. Everything was repaired again and again and this was certainly true of the family quilts, which were patched up with scraps of fabric from old clothing. After many repairs, the quilt top began to resemble a patchwork design more than solid fabric and these were the precursors of the beautiful and inventive patterns of the 18th and 19th centuries, now elevated to an art form and highly prized.

As the struggle for survival gave way to economic prosperity and commercial routes opened to the Near East and Orient, imported fabrics became available on the Atlantic seaboard, but the thrifty Colonial housewife still made use of every scrap of fabric. Women left alone for long periods of time formed what were called Quilting Bees. These social gatherings fulfilled many functions, keeping the women’s spirits high, when family circles were broken either by leaving for the West or by death and often the two were synonymous.

Taken with them to - often hazardous - new frontiers, the quilts were used as 'kinship bonds' hence the name ‘comforters’, a reminder of family ties and more pleasant days spent gossiping over quilting frames. In what may now seem mawkish, quilts often had coffins appliqued on them, labelled with departed family members' names, by sleeping under this "comforter" they would be reunited with loved ones every night.

Popularity only started wane with the Industrial Revolution and the availability of cheaper printed materials and this remained more of less so until the 60’s revival.

Patchwork has also featured in literature, in Dickens' novels David Copperfield and Oliver Twist. It was a synonym for poverty. One reads of ‘crackling quilts' - a reference to the padding which was generally paper and used by the poor for cheap warmth and looking around London now, you see that little has changed.

The earliest record of patchwork and quilting varies, although it probably originates from the Orient thousands of years ago. The technique was brought back to Europe from the Near East by the Crusaders. In battle they wore heavy iron armour but suffered defeat to the Saracens in their more mobile light quilted shirts and chain mail, so it seemed prudent to introduce the idea to Europe. After firearms came into common use they became superfluous to battle, but the technique became more widely used for the production of many utilitarian textiles.

We may not be able to afford an original quilt: now fetching high prices in auction houses around the world, but we can enjoy and comfortably afford a modern day version. A patchwork quilt used alone on summer nights with a lace flat sheet, gives an effect that is both charming and different. In winter, a couple of fleecy blankets complete the cosy picture.

Buyers of these beautiful quilts - now made in China and India - form no social pattern. They are very trendy at the moment among the young, the middle-aged adore them and of course the more senior members of the family have always loved them. Because the designs are timeless, they grace any setting, modern, Art Deco or Victorian.

And they don't just stay in the bedroom. An effective way to rejuvenate an old sofa is to use the quilt as a throw and when those long, winter nights creep up on us, just pull the quilt around to keep out the draughts. Mixing patchwork with William Morris arts & crafts designs work extremely well together in either modern or traditional decor as they were founded on similar principles.

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