Quilting: a brief history

Home

This work is protected by a Creative Commons License. Creative Commons License
Design and original content Copyright 2005 by Chris Laning.


E-mail: Chris Laning

QUILT COUNTERPOINT

Quilting is one of those arts whose origins are lost in time. It seems to have been invented independently at several times and places. And the practical probably came before the beautiful: stitching two layers of cloth together with padding in between is an effective way of making a sturdy fabric that resists punctures, softens sharp corners and retains body heat.

Modern American culture complicates our discussion of quilting by using the word “quilt” both to describe the process of stitching layers together, and to describe a bed covering that is in fact not always quilted, but has an appliquéd or pieced design in colored cloth. But combining these decorative techniques and quilting didn’t become really popular till the 18th century.

In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, quilting — in the sense of sewing layers together — was far more often done on plain cloth. Such “whole-cloth” quilting is what we’ll be discussing here.

BED FURNISHINGS

There are plenty of descriptions and a few surviving examples of quilted pieces from before 1600. That medieval quilting was fairly common is supported, for instance, by many mentions in inventories of bed furnishings called “quyltes,” “counterpoyntes,” or “counterpanes,” including “a bed... of quoiltene and of materasz” in 1290 (“of quilting and mattress”). More entertaining is a 1320 poem giving a list of the furnishings for a castle, including “Foure hondred beddes of selk echon [each one], Quiltes of gold there upon.”

Probably the oldest surviving example of quilted fabric is a floor covering from one of the “kurgan” tombs of the nomadic peoples from Western Asia, a place called Noin Ula, south of Lake Baikal. It was found on the floor of the tomb, where it had been preserved by permafrost.

The center of the Noin Ula quilt is filled with a pattern of large clockwise and counterclockwise spirals, with smaller spirals between, forming a continuous pattern. The inner border is a band of geometric shapes, outlined with cord and quilted to the foundation. The outer borders are quilted in small diamonds, and appliquéd with small trees and pairs of battling animals filled with closely spaced lines of additional quilting. This dates from sometime between the first century BC and the second century AD.

QUILTED CLOTHING

There is also abundant evidence of quilted medieval clothing, dating from at least the early 1200s, especially of protective clothing to be worn under armor. The surviving quilted “pourpoint” or jacket of Charles de Blois in the Musée Historique des Tissues in Lyon, France, which dates to the 1360s, is one example made in this style (though it’s now questioned whether this particular example was originally quilted).

Other quilted jackets known from period documents, pictures and a few surviving examples, include the gambeson, haketon and jack. These were made by specialist “linen armorers” (separate from the makers of metal armor). King Edward I of England approved their Guild charter in 1272. (They later became the Merchant Taylors Guild, which still exists today.)

Quilted caps and linings were worn inside metal helmets, under armor and inside gloves. A quilted “jack” could also be protection for men who couldn’t afford metal armor, and these could be surprisingly tough: rioters during Wat Tyler’s rebellion (1381) trying to destroy a jack belonging to the Duke of Lancaster had to resort to swords and axes to hack it in pieces.

The few quilted garments that survive from Europe all seem to be quilted in plain straight lines, squares or diamond shapes. This seems to be generally true for Europe: decorative quilting is more or less confined to furnishings such as bed covers and perhaps wall hangings. Quilted clothing seems to have been more utilitarian.

Another early example, which may or may not be an exception to this, is a quilted slipper that was discarded on the Silk Road sometime in the 8th century. It is quilted in a pattern of overlapping quarter-circle “fans,” but it seems to have been pieced together from scraps of already-quilted fabric (perhaps a furnishing).

Information on early quilted pieces is often hard to find, or to extract from manuscript sources. Quilting seems to have been taken so much for granted that it was was rarely described in detail. For instance, decorative quilting is seldom mentioned. Was it very rare or was it common? We have no way of knowing.

In the same way, we can’t be sure if the bedcoverings described as “quyltes” or “counterpanes” were always quilted, even though that’s the origin of the words: “quilt” from the Latin culcita, which seems to mean “stuffed,” and “counterpane” from the French contre-poinct, literally “counter-stitching,” referring to stitching back and forth through layers. A third complication is that apparently the word “quilted” can also simply mean “stuffed,” like a cushion. We know that King Henry VIII had a favorite “quilted” brocade cushion, but we don’t know whether this was merely a stuffed cushion or whether it was a cushion with a quilted cover.

By the 16th century, we have a lot more records to look at; and we know that Katherine Howard, for instance, was given 23 bed quilts of “sarcenett” (a lightweight silk). We also know that quilted nightcaps were worn, because Sir Thomas Elyot’s book The Castel of Health (1541) recommends against them as being too warm! The Hapsburg emperor Charles V also took 16 quilted silken nightshirts with him when he retired to Spain in 1556.

THE MATERIALS

The nature of quilting is dictated somewhat by the materials used. Linen, especially plain tabby cloth, and the more luxurious silk seem to have been the most common outer fabrics.

Probably the most famous examples of medieval European quilts are three pictorial quilts of linen, called the “Tristan quilts”, made around 1400 in Sicily. The front is linen, the back is a slightly coarser linen, and it is quilted with light and dark natural shades of linen thread. These quilts are often referred to as “stuffed quilting” or “trapunto”: the design motifs are stuffed individually with cotton, and the background is simply the two layers of linen, quilted together but with no stuffing between them.

Cotton as the stuffing of choice seems to be quite common. This is a bit surprising at first, since cotton cloth and cotton yarn did not become really common in Europe until well after 1600 — but cotton batting was present much earlier. A wardrobe account from the reign of King John (1212) mentions paying 16 pence for a pound of cotton for the filling of a haketon for His Majesty.

Cotton is harder to quilt through than wool, and it does not have the same tendency to “bounce back” when compressed. For armor padding, this is actually an advantage: compressed cotton is tough and doesn’t move easily, so quilting stuffed with cotton is harder for weapons to pierce, even if it’s not reinforced (as it sometimes is) with metal or horn plates inserted into the compartments of the quilting.

Cotton’s lack of resilience is also an advantage if decorative quilting is to be “stuffed” with additional bits of padding to raise it from the background, as in the Tristan quilts. I discovered this for myself the first time I tried to stitch a stuffed motif from the Tristan quilt’s borders. When I tried using carded wool, it was easy to stuff it into the corners of the motif, but it would spring back before I had a chance to stitch the motif closed. Cotton stays where you put it, making the job much easier.

To its disadvange, however, once a motif has been stuffed with cotton, it’s difficult to stitch through it to add any decorative details, as is done with the faces, for example, on the Tristan quilt. Quilting through cotton almost always requires a thimble, even if you don’t use one for other stitching, and to stitch through a firmly stuffed area, I find I often need to pull the needle through with pliers.

Cotton also needs to be quilted fairly closely, at least every inch or so, if you want it to remain in place and not slip or bunch up. This is particularly true if the quilted object is going to be washed frequently. This is different from modern polyester batting, which can often be simply tied or tacked in place here and there. Polyester batting also does not reproduce the “look” of period quilting very well, because it tends to be both springier and thicker, creating a puffier look. (Modern quilters, of course, often prefer this look.) Polyester also may not “breathe” well if used for clothing, since it doesn’t absorb moisture very well. On the other hand, both polyester and wool retain some warmth when wet, and they also dry more quickly than cotton.

Wool is used as stuffing in some medieval pieces, but mostly where something is quilted specifically for warmth. It’s much easier to quilt through, but has to be washed very carefully to prevent shrinkage.

THE STITCHING

People who haven’t tried quilting are often intimidated by the idea that it requires some mysterious “quilting stitch.” In actual fact, it’s quite easy. For simple or utilitarian quilting, the “quilting stitch” is simply an ordinary running stitch, taken through all the layers at once.

In period, decorative or fine quilting was more often done using the equally ordinary backstitch, which creates a continuous outline on the surface of the fabric, making the design stand out more clearly. Although slower, this does make a significant difference in how the finished product looks.

The ideal is to make your quilting stitches even, straight, and small. Stitches don’t have to be tiny — 1/8 inch is a good length; it’s hard to get them much smaller unless you use very thin batting and fine needles. “Betweens” needles are good for quilting because they are short and have an eye that isn’t larger than the rest of the needle, so they slip through fabric easily, but any sharp needle you’re comfortable with is fine.

There’s a good deal of advice out there on how to improve your quilting stitches; the consensus is that it’s better to try for evenness first, and your stitches will get smaller with practice. Everyone’s quilting looks different: I noticed when working on a major quilting project with a friend that our quilting stitches were every bit as distinctive as our handwriting: mine were smaller but tended to wander a bit; hers were a bit larger, but more even and straighter. In either case, practice makes perfect.

The consensus also is that running stitches are straighter and more even if you run your needle in and out to get several stitches on your needle before pulling the needle through, as shown in the illustration of hands on p.6. Resist the temptation to do “stab” stitches, plunging the needle down through the fabric once and pulling it through, unless you are in a particularly thick or difficult area. For backstitch, you are taking only one stitch at a time, but you can still bring the needle down and up through the fabric before pulling it through.

Many authors try to make distinctions among various types of quilting, such as “wadded” quilting with a uniform layer of batting, “trapunto” for quilting with extra stuffing to create raised motifs, and “corded” quilting where the design is formed by quilting narrow channels, which are then filled by running a soft cord through them.

In practice, however, these techniques are often mixed and matched in period examples. The Tristan quilts have the motifs stuffed with cotton, while in the background the two layers of fabric are simply held together by rows of running stitches with no padding at all. There is a 16th-century German quilt with a design of corded eight-point stars, each filled with the same kind of running-stitch background and centered with small animal motifs that are not stuffed but merely outlined with stitching.

FOR FURTHER READING:

As with many medieval arts, there isn’t yet a single book that covers medieval quilting in detail. The best book for historical documentation (and a major source for this article) is Averil Colby’s Quilting [1972, B.T. Batsford Ltd., ISBN 0-7134-5901-8]. It’s out of print, but used copies are not too hard to find on the Internet.