What is a quilt ?

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The word “quilt” comes from English and literally means “quilt”. But this meaning has long since ceased to be a fitting expression for the masterpieces that were created under the name of quilt in colonial America and are created all over the world today.

A quilt always consists of three layers of fabric:

The top of the quilt, also known as the quilt top , is either composed of many pieces of fabric (patchwork) or provided with applications, or both elements are present. The top can also consist of just a single piece of fabric (Wholecloth quilt).

The intermediate layer (batting)  used to be made of wool or cotton, which had to be plucked apart by hand before the top was placed on top and the whole thing was stapled together. In some old quilts you can even see the seeds of the cotton in the backlight. Today mostly a cotton wool made of polyester or cotton / polyester fabric is used

The back of the quilt usually consists of a single piece of fabric, but it can also be put together from many pieces of fabric (possibly making a double-faced quilt).

The term “quilting” itself refers to the stitching together of the three layers with small stitches. In the past, this was done exclusively by hand; today, quilting is also done with a sewing machine. Only quilting gives the quilt its three-dimensional dimension , which is a nice contrast to the play of colors on the top.

the history of quilts

The Chinese were probably the first to make their winter clothing out of three layers of fabric. A warming intermediate layer was inserted between the upper and lower fabric and held together by quilting seams.

From China this idea spread across the whole of the Orient. Finally, in the Middle Ages, knights brought quilted undershirts from the Crusades to Europe, which they wore under their heavy armor. This technology was used here to make warm clothes and blankets, and later also tapestries. An unusual cold spell in the 14th century stimulated demand for quilted textiles in England. In the beginning the quilting patterns were purely functional, but soon they were quilting artistic ornaments. Portuguese traders brought oriental quilts to Europe and their intricate patterns served as templates.

The quilts gradually evolved from an everyday item to a work of art.The Trapunto technique originated in Italy. This is quilted on a white background and the individual ornaments are made three-dimensional through light stuffing. In France, quilts were sewn from silk and damask fabrics and in Spain from brocade and velvet.

how quilts came to america

With the emigrants from all over Europe after 1620, the warm blankets came to the New World. When they arrived in America, the quilts they had brought with them were badly battered after the hardships they had suffered on the journey. There was hardly any way to buy new fabrics. So the old quilts had to be mended. You took what was available: pieces of old clothes that were still usable or that seemed otherwise suitable.

These quilts, created out of necessity, were certainly anything but artistic, but they did their job. Even as immigrants’ lives slowly returned to normal, getting the fabrics remained a problem. So the quilts were still made from leftovers. But now women began to make a virtue out of necessity.They started designing their own patterns and trying to make intricate and interesting quilts. They gave these patterns (blocks) names.

 The names of these patterns, which are still used today, partly come from the field of daily work and life such as “Sawtooth” (saw tooth), “Basket of Scraps” or “Broken Dishes” (shards). Or they come from the areas in which the patterns were created, such as “Ohio Star” or “Texas Star”. In the barren log cabins, the colorful and imaginative ceilings were often the only gem.

Quilting soon took on a social function. The settler women met at so-called “quilting bees”. In the land of great distances they freed themselves from their isolation and exchanged news and experiences. They then put together the blocks they had prepared at home to form a quilt and quilted it together, clamped in a large frame. Patterns and colors vary depending on the area, lifestyle and religion. In addition to their own quilts, they also made joint quilts for special events on these occasions (for example friendship, memory or bridal quilts).

All quilts made before 1750 are distinctly patchwork pieces. From 1750 – circa 1850, quilts with appliqués were popular, especially floral designsAt that time, quilts with appliqué were given a higher value and were only used on special occasions. That is why we have retained many more antique quilts with appliqué patterns than patchwork quilts. These were intended for everyday use and naturally wore out faster.

the quilts of the 20th and 21st centuries

In the seventies of the 20th century the art of quilting in America flourished again and in the eighties quilting became popular again in Europe. But today’s quilt has long since overcome the image of the useful bedspread. Quilts have gained in importance far beyond their purpose as a document of cultural history. After being dismissed as “women’s work” for generations, and after 20 years of heated debate about whether it was a craft or an art, quilts have their place as an object of artasserts.

By presenting quilts as design objects, exhibitions in museums over the past three decades have served to detach quilts from their past of purely everyday objects. Quilting has begun to attract artists who have decided to portray themselves with a needle and thread and leave behind an established reputation in areas such as painting (by the way: there are several internationally known and recognized male quilting artists, e.g. Michael James, Ricky Tims, John Flynn and others).

Today’s quilting artists are innovative, they sometimes implement their ideas in an unconventional way. This was clearly evident at the 1st European Quilt Triennial, which took place in Germany and Switzerland in 2000 and 2001.

There are hand-dyed cotton and silk fabrics used. In addition, more and more visual arts techniques are included (artistic painting, hand, screen and computer printing). Also quilt atypical materials such as plastic foil, bronze fabric, zippers and much more can be used. It is played with optical multilayeredness and depth (example: three-dimensional quilts) or through views designed using pieces of transparent fabric or window-like openings.

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