Quilting has long been an art form in North America. From early colonial times, the evolution of the quilt has been an innovative living expression of the people involved rather than a mere static artifact. The act of piecing and quilting is not merely, and never has been, a means of producing a practical, useful item. This act also affords the maker a means of creative expression and a legitimate reason for socializing and participating in what could be looked upon as group advice and counseling sessions. Thus quilt-making is one of the few crafts where a group of women, of mixed ability and ages, can congregate for mutual relaxation and help.
Textiles have long been considered to be the woman's realm. In her hooked rugs, tablecloths, bedcovers and quilts, the American woman not only performed incredible feats of needlework but exhibited a brilliant sense of color and design that has brought her the tardy recognition of today's graphic designers and abstract painters. Winters were cold and fabrics in short supply in the New World. To make warm bedcovers, thrifty housewives saved scraps of worn-out garments, sewed them together in pleasing patterns, attached the tops to a backing of sturdy material with a thin padding of cotton and wool in between, and joined the three layers with tiny stitches to produce the quilting.
The "patchwork" quilt was an early form of recycling, raised to the level of an art; collectively, early American quilts form a "museum without walls" of old fabrics -- chintzes, percales, muslins, calicoes, sometimes silks and early wholecloth quilts were of one solid color and made of "calamanco," a fine-glazed wood cloth, with the quilting stitches and patterns providing the decorative content. Other wholecloth quilts utilized patterned fabric and, therefore, were of a more utilitarian nature, serving only to unite the quilt top with the filling and the backing.
Another type of wholecloth quilt was known as "whitework," where both the top and the backing would have been made of white cotton or linen. In the Neoclassical American textile world this celebration of classical purity manifested itself in the production of all-white quilts in which the decorative element was provided by the use of intricate stitching and padding that transformed a flat area of cloth into a low-relief.
Techniques such as cording, trapunto and candlewicking or roving were employed to achieve this effect. Cording and trapunto work involve working from the wrong side of a quilt, onto which a layer of open weave fabric has been fixed: cord and stuffing were introduced between the two layers, thereby raising these areas above the background of the quilt. In this way elaborate patterns were created without the need of introducing any color.
The second type of early American quilt was the "medallion" quilt, where a central motif or medallion dominates the quilt top and is emphasized by one or more borders that draw attention to and complement the main part of the design. These medallions were of skillful needlework executed in techniques and stitches originating in the places from where the colonists had emigrated, of cut-out chintz work, in which chintz pieces were cut out and sewn onto the foundation fabric. At a time when lengths of fabric were highly prized, this was a way of making the most of a piece of material or, in some cases, rescuing something that had begun to wear out in places.
As the 19th century progressed, what we now know as "blockwork" increased in popularity to the extent that wholecloth and cut-out chintz quilts became a rarity, leaving mosaic piecework and blockwork as the types of quilt most often executed. Toward the middle of the century, technology had progressed so far that the production of printed fabric had increased in speed and capacity providing a wide array of fabric for the domestic market.
The country was opening up to westward migration and transportation was improving both for the movement of people and goods, and this affected quilting. For example, one explanation for the emergence and popularity of friendship quilts around the 1840s was the increased migration of people to the Far West. A fashion arose for making quilts composed of blocks made by different people, often on the occasion of someone moving from one community to another.
A variation on this was making mourning quilts, often using pieces of the deceased's garments. As well as "friendship" quilts, other blockwork fashions included "signature" and "album" quilts. Another type of quilt could more accurately be called a "sampler" quilt. In much the same way as a young girl would make a needlework sampler to try out or show her prowess at a variety of stitches, so a quilter might experiment with new quilting blocks and quilting patterns.
Throughout the history of American quilt-making, two main methods have remained constant: first, the piecing of different shapes, somewhat like a jigsaw, to produce a square or rectangular shape that could be joined with other similar blocks; second, a method of applying or appliquéing small or large motifs onto a background fabric. The availability of cheaper fabrics -- in the form of calico and cheaper machine-produced pins -- allowed a wider range of women to produce intricately appliquéd quilts.
From about 1830 the influence of the decorative art of German immigrants to Pennsylvania began to manifest itself in the design of appliquéd quilts. Motifs that were in evidence in other pieces of folk art, such as painted furniture, ceramics and Fraktur paintings, began to transfer across to the quilts that were slowly being adopted as a type of bedcover by these Pennsylvania Germans.
Many pieced and appliqué quilts were made according to patterns or motifs that sprang up from infinite variety throughout the country, their colorful names a reflection of momentous historical events, local pride, native flora and fauna, popular literature, the bible, frontier life and simple country humor. Thus, we have Lincoln's Platform, Rocky Road to Kansas, North Carolina Rose, Turkey Tracks, Caesar's Crown, Log Cabin, Courthouse Square, Drunkard's Path, to name but a few.
Some patterns had their origins in Europe: the Princess Feather was said to have come from Northumberland, England, inspired by the sweeping plumes of the Cavaliers; Pennsylvania quilts often feature the tulip, one of the most common motifs in the distinctive design repertory imported from the German-speaking lands of Europe.
Patterns were passed down from mother to daughter and circulated from one household to another. Although some regional traditions can be identified -- the Amish, for example, tended to use strong vibrant colors in their quilts -- most motifs traveled far and wide across the country as its inhabitants moved on to populate each new frontier area. Particularly talented women originated their own designs or created pictorial quilts.
Quilting added an extra dimension in warmth as well as in appearance, and quilting designs were sometimes as intricate as the pieced or appliqué top. Elaborate quilting patterns, such as wheels or feathers, were often cut from mill-net, an open-mesh fabric rather like cheesecloth, stiffened with glue or starch. These patterns were pinned to the quilt top and traced with pencil, chalk or dry soap. Quilting was done on a large rectangular wooden frame over which the quilt could be pulled taut and gradually rolled up as the work progressed.
From the farms of New England to the scattered homesteads of the Midwestern prairies and beyond, generations of women found quilt-making a welcome occupation. Looking back on her life on the farm, one Midwestern grandmother commented, "I would have lost my mind if I had not had my quilts to do!"
If the piecing together of the design was individual therapy, a from of 19th-century group therapy was provided by the quilting bee, when the quilting was done by a group of women who turned the work into an excuse for a cheerful social event. The bee was a popular winter pastime, a day-long affair that culminated in a great dinner and perhaps some song and dance.
Quilts are far more than a simple record of the sewing and design skills of generations of American women. They are the story of how each element of quilt-making -- fabrics, domestic skills, gender roles, lifestyles -- came into play. The evolution of quilt designs closely parallels the growth of the nation itself.
The history of quilts is embedded in our culture, and conversely, the history of our culture is stitched into our quilts. Understanding one sheds light on the other.
WENDELL GARRETT is senior vice president of American decorative arts at Sotheby's.