A Brief History of Patchwork & Quilting

Patchwork and quilting have been practised as both practical and decorative crafts for centuries.  Their popularity has fluctuated according to changes in society and styles have developed according to resources available and the social status of the maker. Through a rich and interesting history the crafts have emerged as popular, relevant and widely practised in the 21st century, building on traditional skills and experimenting with contemporary artistic techniques.

Little is known about patchwork and quilting before the 18th century, and there are few surviving examples. The Quilters’ Guild Collection contains one of the earliest known dated patchworks, the 1718 Silk Patchwork Coverlet. Made by piecing over paper templates, the expensive silks used have been kept and treasured for decades before they were incorporated into the coverlet. Patchwork was a ladies’ leisure pursuit at this time, whilst quilting was considered a professional skill and plain quilts and quilted petticoats were popular, the latter being worn for fashionable daywear.

Technological improvements in textile manufacture led to a fashionable phase of using printed cotton fabrics at the end of the 18th century, which continued in to the early 19th century.  For those who could afford it, expensive and high status printed cottons were often pieced together using the mosaic patchwork method, which also required another expensive commodity -  paper - to produce the templates. Simpler and cheaper fabrics were used by the lower classes in less complicated designs. By the middle of the century cottons were falling out of favour. The advent of roller printing had made cottons cheaper to produce and therefore widened their availability further down the social scale. In 1856 the first synthetic dye, Mauveine, was produced, followed by a vast range of bright colours, and the fashion shifted from printed cottons to vibrant silks and velvets. Mosaic patchwork cushions, throws, table covers and tea cosies adorned the cluttered parlours of Victorian homes. Baby blocks, log cabin, crazy and hexagon patchworks were all popular and often further embellished with embroidery and trimmings.

The late 19th and early 20th century saw the heyday of the Wholecloth quilt, a traditional skill passed on through the generations in Wales, the North Country and the Scottish Borders. In the North Country, quilt ‘stampers’ were professional markers who drew designs onto plain or pieced tops, whilst in Wales professional quilters would travel around making quilts to order. Each area developed their own particular style and popular motifs, with feathers and twisted ropes common in the North Country and leaves and spirals often found in Wales.

The 20th century was a time of great fluctuation. The interruption of two world wars and a dramatic shift in society led to a scarcity of available materials and decline in traditional skills. Competition from commercially manufactured alternatives meant traditional quilts seemed time consuming and undesirable. However, some people could still see their value, and continued to practise, teach and research patchwork and quilting, leading to an eventual resurgence of interest in the 1960s and '70s. In 1979 The Quilters’ Guild was formed with the intention of ensuring the traditional crafts of patchwork and quilting were passed on, and to represent a new wave of quilters to take the craft into the 21st century.