custom made quilts



It seems that quilting has been around forever. I hear so many wonderful stories about quilting: where the patches come from, how they were cut, the quilting circles, the time, patience and love that goes into putting a quilt together.Technology has certainly made quilting a lot easier, and certainly a lot faster. I’m sure the women of the early 19th century would be astounded to see how fast a machine can sew a quilt together!

Here’s a some background about this fabulous craft that joins women across the world (taken from wikipedia)

Quilting at the dawn of the nineteenth century

Quilt making was uncommon in America in the late 18th century and early years of the nineteenth. Most women were busy spinning, weaving and sewing in order to clothe their family. Commercial blankets or woven coverlets were a more economical bedcovering for most people. Only the wealthy had the leisure time for quilt making so Colonial quilting was done by only a few.

Obviously quilts were not made of left over scraps or worn clothing as a humble bedcovering during this period. Instead they were decorative items that displayed the fine needlework of the maker.

Whole cloth quilts, broderie perse and medallion quilts were the styles of quilts made during the early 19th century.

Whole cloth quilts

Quilts made of a solid piece of fabric as the top layer are referred to as Whole Cloth Quilts. The three layers of top, batting and backing were quilted together, and the quilting itself became the decoration. Both wool and cotton solid color quilts and white quilts were made during this period. The white ones are sometimes called “whitework”.

A few were made with a simple overall quilting design but many were works of art, with beautiful quilting including feathers, flowers and other natural motifs. Some were made even more exquisite by a method called trapunto. Trapunto is the technique of slipping extra stuffing into certain areas of a quilt to bring out the quilting in that area. For example trapunto stuffing inside a feather or flower makes that part of the quilt a little thicker, so the design stands out. Women were proud of fine and even quilt stitches in these quilts.

Broderie perse quilts

Broderie perse 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.

Printed fabric was expensive even for those who were well off. By cutting out birds, flowers and other motifs from printed fabric and sewing them onto a large homespun cloth a beautiful bedspread could be made. The technique was also used on some early medallion quilts as in the example linked below.

Broderie Perse bedcoverings were usually used on the best bed or sometimes only when guests were staying in the home.

Medallion quilts

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.

Changes in quiltmaking during the mid nineteenth century

Progress in technology deeply affected the number and styles of quilts made during the middle years of the 19th century.

The industrial revolution brought about the most dramatic change as textiles came to be manufactured on a broad scale. This meant women no longer had to spend time spinning and weaving to provide fabric for their family’s needs. By the 1840s the textile industry had grown to the point that commercial fabrics were affordable to almost every family. As a result quilt making became widespread.

A great variety of cotton prints could be bought for the making of clothing and even specifically for making a quilt. Although scraps left over from dressmaking and other sewing projects were used in quilt making, it is a myth that quilts were always made from scraps and worn out clothing. Examining pictures of quilts found in museums we quickly see that many quilts were made with fabric bought specifically for that quilt.

Another major shift was in the style of quilts made. Although a few earlier quilts were made in the block style, quilts made up of blocks were uncommon until around the 1840s. With so many fabrics being manufactured quilters could create their blocks with a delightful variety of fabrics.

Some block style quilts were made of a set of identical pieced blocks while others contained a variety of blocks made with different patterns. The blocks were sewn together and a border may or may not have been added.

During this period the invention and availability of the sewing machine contributed to quilt making. In 1856 The Singer company started the installment plan so that more families could afford a sewing machine. By the 1870s a good many households owned a sewing machine.

This affected quilt making in two ways. First of all women could make clothing for their family in much less time leaving more time for quilt making and secondly they could use their sewing machines to make all or part of their quilts. More often the sewing machine was used to piece quilts but occasionally the quilting was done with the sewing machine.

Quilting for the cause in the United States during the Civil War era

There were many years and events leading up to the American Civil War. First quilts were made to raise funds to support the abolitionist movement then during the Civil War quilts were made to earn money for the war effort and to give warmth and comfort to soldiers. The patterns were much like those made mid-century but the purpose was different. Quilts connected to the abolitionist movement and the Civil War were made for a cause.

The movement to free the slaves and the role of quilts

Even before 1830 abolitionists were working hard to end slavery. One way they did this was to hold grand fairs to raise both awareness and money for the abolitionist cause. Quilts were one of many craft pieces sold at these fairs. These quilts were usually fine quilts often with beautiful appliqué. Women sometimes put anti-slavery poems and sayings on the quilts they made for fairs as well as for friends and family. The goal was to show the terrible plight of the slaves.

Some abolitionists were active in the Underground Railroad helping runaway slaves get to safety. There are stories that certain quilts were used as signals to help the slaves in their flight to freedom. The idea that a log cabin quilt would be hung on the line of a safe house was one. More recent stories tell of certain quilts being used to tell the slaves what they needed to do to get to safety. This all sounds quite romantic but there is no historic evidence that quilts were ever used in this way. But we do know that a valiant effort was made by both whites and free slaves to help these slaves to their destination.

Quilt historians have written about the lack of evidence that Quilts of the Underground Railroad were any more than stories that have caught our imagination.

Quilts to warm the soldiers and quilts to raise money for the war

Women on both sides were very active in raising money for the war effort and making quilts and other bed coverings for soldiers.

In the north quilts were still made for fairs but now these fairs earned money to support needs that came about because of the war. In the south lovely quilts called gun boat quilts were made to pay for much needed gun boats.

But it wasn’t long before it was obvious that soldiers on both sides would need blankets and quilts to give them warmth. In the north women either made quilts or remade quilts from bed coverings. Since the cots were narrow two bedspreads could be made into three quilts for soldiers. The United States Sanitary Commission was in charge of collecting these quilts and distributing them.

In the south it was more difficult. Even though cotton was grown in the south it was manufactured into fabric in the north. Before long fabric was almost impossible to obtain so women had to spin and weave before they could sew together a bed covering.

Needless to say most of the quilts made for soldiers on either side were made with practical patterns and fabric. Very few have survived to this day.

Quilting During the last decades of the 19th century, the Victorian Era

Quilt making continued to be a popular craft during the latter part of the 19th century. The Victorian influence was a bit delayed in the United States because of the Civil War and its aftermath.

The Crazy Quilting Fad

In terms of quilts the latter years of the 19th century the best know quilt style was the Crazy Quilt. Crazy quilts were made of abstract shapes sewn together. Usually the quilt maker then used embroidery to embellish the quilt. First fancy stitches were sewn along the seams. Often the maker also added embroidered motifs including flowers, birds and sometimes a spider and web for good luck. Crazy quilting was quite the fad during this period. Magazines encouraged making crazies. Young women were particularly eager to make them. These quilts were seldom used as bedcoverings. Instead they were made smaller and without batting to be used as decorative throws.

Traditional Quilts Were Still Made

Because the crazy quilting craze was so popular during this period one might overlook the fact that many traditional quilts were also made. Utilitarian quilts were pieced and tied or simply quilted for everyday bed coverings while beautiful pieced and/or appliquéd quilts were created for special events like a wedding or when a beloved minister was transferred to a new location. These were more often elaborately quilted.


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This entry was posted on December 20, 2010 by and tagged .


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