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From Ancient Pharaohs to Contemporary Art - A Visual History of Quilting


At first glance, the carving is ancient but unremarkable, a crowned ivory figure stoops forward, wrapped in a short, stiffened ceremonial robe believed to be worn by kings in the first ancient Egyptian dynasty. However, on closer inspection, the figure's apparel is unusual. patterned with diamond-like shapes and bordered by two bands of interlaced braids, the hand-carved effect suggests woven designs on a weighted fabric. Uncovered in the Temple of Osiris at Abydos in 1903, this 5,500-year-old figure is shrouded in the earliest depiction of a quilted garment known today.

In its simplest form, quilting is a method of stitching multiple layers of material together. Constructed with two or more layers of fabric, with a layer of padding (also known as wadding or batting) sandwiched in between, quilts are held together by rows of stitching that bind and reinforce the material. Over history, quilts have been used for bedding, decoration, armour and as vessels of comfort and commemoration. And because of their many forms, quilts contain vital historical information relayed throughout visual history.

The oldest surviving example of a quilted textile piece is a linen rug left in a Mongolian tomb, dated between 100 BCE and 200 CE. Found in 1924, the quilt is believed to be a funerary carpet, with a border quilted with geometric shapes and figures of animals and trees. In her book Needlework Through the Ages (1928), Mary Symonds Antrobus writes:

This carpet was actually on the floor of a tomb just as it might have been used in the tent or mountain stronghold of a great chieftain during life...The middle of the carpet is quilted all over with a bold pattern of large spirals and each joined to another by smaller scrolls in the intervening spaces... the border is composed of a series of animal motives closely quilted down...

The longevity of this surviving funerary textile example is unique, but the practice of quilting is far-reaching. In the southern provinces of Pakistan and the adjoining states of Gujarat and Rajasthan in India, Ralli quilts have likely been sewn since the fourth millennium BCE. Made up of several layers of worn fabric or dyed cotton scraps held together by thick coloured thread stitched in straight lines, a distinguishing feature of Ralli patchwork and appliqué quilts is the diagonal placement of blocks as well as the inclusion of tassels, shells and embroidery.

Nakshi Kantha, a type of embroidered quilt, is a centuries-old Bengali art tradition notable in Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura and part of Assam. Constructed with thread and old cloth, early Nakshi kanthas had a white background accented with red, blue and black embroidery. Yellow, green, pink and other colours were included more recently. The running stitch called Kantha stitch is the main stitch used to bind and decorate these quilts

Motifs of the Nakshi Kantha quilts are informed by spiritual beliefs and culture. Although no strict structure is prescribed, an embroidered Kantha quilt will often exhibit a lotus as a central focal point, surrounded by other designs. Other motifs within these quilts may include images of leaves, vines, animals, people, geometric features and writing. Traditionally, old saris, lungis and dhotis are used to construct the Nakshi Kantha quilts.

For nomadic peoples in Central Asia, mattresses traditionally made of quilted patchwork are slept on at night and folded up and displayed in a decorative pile during the day. Similarly, traditional clothing incorporates patchwork and quilting, lending practical reinforcement and protection. The suzani, an embroidered and quilted textile from Uzbekistan and northern Tajikistan, were used as bed covers, dividers between sleeping and living areas, and prayer rugs and wrapping. Traditionally, a woman begins a suzani at the birth of a daughter, continued by family and friends until the girl’s dowry is complete. The dowry of a bride from a well-off family in Nurata, Uzbekistan, was expected to include at least ten suzanis.

In Japan, quilters have developed Yosegire as a means of piecing together scraps of cloth to make quilted clothing, screens, and other household items. Yosegire stemmed from the need to extend the life of scarce fabrics and reflects Shinto customs. In Shinto belief, all things are imbued with a spirit. By giving fabric a new life through Yosegire, quilters paid respect to the spirits by reinvigorating their forms and avoiding waste.

Often associated with comfort and insulation, quilts have also been used as defensive padding and armour. Colourful and complex, the Djibba is a heavy quilted cotton coat from Africa originally worn under chain armour. During the medieval period, Djibbah were predominantly found across Islamic Africa and Europe. In Mesoamerica, warriors wore quilted textile armour called ichcahuipilli. Made of thick quilted layers of packed cotton and cloth, the armour protected the torso of a warrior from blades, arrows and darts. The Codex Mendoza depicts warriors wearing ichcahuipilli along with tlahuiztli suits.

The quilted European gambeson can be traced as far back as the tenth century. Constructed of linen or wool, with scrap cloth or horse hair for stuffing, the gambeson was used as either a complete armour or worn underneath mail and plate to cushion the body and ease chafing. Highly insulating and therefore often hot and uncomfortable, the protection these quilted garments offered was vital nonetheless. The Morgan Bible, a medieval illuminated manuscript of miniature paintings depicting events from the Hebrew Bible in the settings and costumes of thirteenth-century France depicts numerous examples of characters dressed in the gambeson.

A page from the Morgan Bible - Wikimedia Commons iris28
A page from the Morgan Bible with subjects wearing gambeson | Wikimedia Commons

The Tristan Quilt (also known as the Tristan and Isolde Quilt or the Guicciardini Quilt), is one of the oldest surviving decorative quilts in history. Depicting scenes from a medieval chivalric romance and tragedy, the quilt was made in Sicily during the second half of the 14th century. Constructed from two layers of linen, the quilt is stitched together with wadding sewn in between. Backstitch in cream and brown linen thread articulates a series of pictures with captions that have been raised with rolls of cotton stuffing, a technique known as trapunto.

The Tristan Quilt is also the only known intact example of decorative medieval quilting. Kathryn Berenson, an Associate Fellow at the International Quilt Study Center observes that there are numerous artistic precursors that may have influenced the infamous quilt, including the Bayeux Tapestry, the Otranto Cathedral pavement and Norman legend in textile furnishings.

The Tristan Quilts art history iris28
The Tristan Quilts - Wikimedia Commons

During the early American Colonial era, quilts were predominantly whole-cloth: constructed from a single piece of fabric layered with batting and backing held together with needlework. Late-eighteenth-and nineteenth-century patchwork quilts often incorporated wool, silk, linen, and cotton. Some old quilts made in North America have worn-out blankets or older quilts as the internal batting layer, quilted between newer layers of fabric to extend the usefulness of old material. Women settlers also cut paper into shapes to use as quilt patterns and wadding. Paper was scarce, so women saved letters, postcards, newspaper clippings, and catalogues to add to the quilt. Subsequently, the paper preserved inside pioneer quilt-work has become a valuable source of historical information.

Indigenous peoples of America learned quilting from missionaries, settlers, and government field matrons. Following the treaty era and the forced relocation of Native children to boarding schools in the late 19th century, Native American girls learned European-American style sewing and quilting. Quilts from the plains nations became known for their distinctive star motifs, influenced by both European designs and the significance of the morning star to Native American peoples.

Leading up to the American Civil War, many quilts were designed to raise funds to support the abolitionist movement. During the war, quilts were made to raise funds and to give encouragement, warmth and comfort to soldiers.

By the early 19th century, American-produced cotton fabrics were being manufactured in a large array of prints, making access to materials for pieced and appliquéd quilts more affordable, though many fabrics of cotton, wool and silk were still imported. Whole cloth quilts, broderie perse and medallion quilts were among the most popular styles of quilts made during the early 19th century. Built around a central motif, medallion quilts frame a solid feature piece of fabric, an appliquéd design or a large pieced symbol.

French for Persian embroidery, Broderie Perse is a style of appliqué that incorporates printed elements to create a scene on a background fabric. An example of Broderie Perse is the central panel of the Rajah Quilt made by convict women (below) as they were transported to Tasmania in 1841 using materials organised by Lydia Irving of the British Ladies Society.

Text on the Rajah Quilt reads:

To the ladies of the convict ship committee, this quilt worked by the convicts of the ship Rajah during their voyage to van Dieman’s Land is presented as a testimony of the gratitude with which they remember their exertions for their welfare while in England and during their passage and also as a proof that they have not neglected the ladies kind admonitions of being industrious. June 1841.

In the 1840s the album quilt emerged in Baltimore, Maryland. Consisting of diverse appliquéd motifs, the quilts reflected the prosperity of Baltimore, gaining popularity as a gift. With each block made and signed by a different quilter, Album quilts are a compilation of communal work presented as a keepsake. Most of the album quilts from this period were made with brand new fabric, rather than recycled scraps. As improvements in fabric design and manufacture provided new colours and patterns, the popularity of the album quilt style expanded, proving to be an enduring format today.

One of the most significant quilting movements of modern history was orchestrated by a group of women who lived in the African-American hamlet of Gee's Bend along the Alabama River. The quilting tradition in Gee's Bend emerged when African-American women made quilts to keep their families warm in unheated shacks with no running water or electricity. These women developed a distinctive style that exhibited an improvisational and geometric simplicity influenced in part by the isolation of their location, which demanded the use of recycled materials and an innovative perspective and visual approach.

Jennie Pettway and another girl with the quilter Jorena Pettway, Gee's Bend 1937
Jennie Pettway and another girl with the quilter Jorena Pettway, Gee's Bend 1937 - Wikimedia Commons

The invention of the sewing machine made quilting more popular for two key reasons. The machine allowed women to make clothing faster, which granted more free time to make quilts, but the sewing machine also allowed quilts to be completed more quickly, decreasing the degree of labour and time that needed to be invested in the hand quilting process undertaken by previous generations.

Emeline Travis Ludington floral flower vine quilt iris28 art
Emeline Travis Ludington - The Met

With time investment reduced and supplies increasing in variety and accessibility, quilters experienced a greater creative scope that reflected the life and times of the maker. 1850s New York, during an ornate Rococo revival, Emeline Travis Ludington created a quilt with vividly entwined grapevines and appliquéd flowers. In contrast to modest bed quilt styles, this quilt would have been recognised as sophisticated and stylish at the time of its completion. The excellent condition of the quilt is credited to the fact that it was only taken out on special occasions. According to the Met:

Emeline Travis Ludington had an ambitious artistic vision for her quilt, laying out and stitching a stunning overall design and adding an unusual scalloped finishing detail to the edges. Ludington was married to a banker, George, and was the mother of six children. Her quilt-making skill is undocumented beyond this piece.

Modern quilts exhibit a rich diversity in narrative, materials and artistry. A silk quilt made by sisters Ellen Morton Littlejohn and Margaret Morton Bibb, who were both enslaved on the Morton plantation in Logan County, Kentucky, made the pieced silk star-blocked quilt (below left) with exquisite workmanship between 1837 and 1850. In 1875 Ernestine Eberhardt Zaumseil reworked the traditional Indian motif of a tree of life, the ragged edges of leaves and branches likely traced from materials sourced from nature to serve as the pattern for her appliquéd designs (below right).

Amish quilts are valued for their bold designs and colour combinations. Quilting became a favoured activity of the Anabaptist sect after members emigrated to the United States and Canada from Germany and Switzerland. Particular patterns and materials are attributed to specific Amish communities. Pre-1940s quilts from Lancaster County, for example, were almost always made of wool while those sewn in Ohio during the same period were commonly made of cotton, providing decoration in an otherwise minimally furnished home. Although the Amish belief discourages individual expression, quilting has provided a means of creativity, encouraging community and familial closeness. Quilting has also become a source of revenue for many Amish, whose quilts are now sought after both domestically and abroad.

Born into slavery in rural Georgia, Harriet Powers was an American folk artist and quilter. Using traditional appliqué techniques to record local legends, Bible stories and astronomical events, Powers' quilts are regarded as some of the finest examples of nineteenth-century Southern quilting. Powers' Bible Quilt was made first, with the second Pictorial Quilt (below) forging juxtapositions of biblical stories along with real-life events. Only these two quilts of Powers are known to exist today, yet many continue to refer to the pieces as pivotal in contemporary quilt practice overall.

In the latter years of the 19th century, quilts made of abstract shapes were a popular way to use up scraps and flirt with the occasional rigidity of other quilting formats. Known as crazy quilts, the intuitive quilts were made smaller in size and without batting to be used as wall decorations and throws, likely first inspired by English embroidery and Japanese art displayed at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.

Over the late 20th century, quilts became increasingly valued for their artistic qualities. The art quilt is a quilt style that deviates from the use of traditional methods, with emphasis placed on aesthetics rather than functionality. Art quilts can incorporate a variety of techniques and mediums, merging modern and traditional quilting methods to create new art objects. Art quilters often create quilts based on personal experiences, obervations and ideas, rather than adhering to traditional structures.

During the new craft movements of the 1960s and 1970s, quilting became more prominent in fine art. Quilting techniques became prominent in the making of fine arts and feminist artworks. Feminist artists and art critics like Miriam Schapiro and Patricia Mainardi took a keen interest in women’s traditional handicrafts. Between 1975 and 1982, the Artist and the Quilt project paired artists and quiltmakers as a feminist response to the perceived boundaries separating art and craft. Artists Susan Shie, Sue Benner and Carolyn Mazloomi all drew on feminism as a driving device behind quilt-making. Teaching over 2,000 workshops, Jean Ray Laury taught women to see the creative possibilities in everyday objects and draw inspiration through new perspectives and quilting techniques. For this, Laury has been called a foremother of quilt revival and a pioneer of non-traditional quilts, penning in her book Quilts & Coverlets: A Contemporary Approach (1970):

If we can retain the structural integrity of the traditional quilt, and add to it a contemporary approach in color and design, we will achieve a quilt which merges past and present

Patricia Cooper and Norma Bradley Buferd conducted an oral history project documenting the social and cultural influences of quilts in women’s lives. The resulting book, The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art, an Oral History (1977), chronicles the lives and quilts of pioneer women of Texas and New Mexico at the turn of the twentieth century. Women give their oral accounts, while thirty-six colour photographs showcase their quilts. The award-winning book was the basis of the Broadway play Quilters, nominated for seven Tony Awards. In the opening passage, Cooper and Buferd write:

We sought them out because we were interested in their art. We bought quilts from them, sold quilts for them, and in the process became so impressed with their wisdom and strength as individuals that we wanted to record what we could of their lives. Through them we came to know our grandmothers and mothers, and finally to know ourselves. Through long conversations, visits, shared work, we got a sense of our history we had not before experienced.

Contemporary quilting has been used as a tool to re-contextualize and reinvigorate a wide variety of subject matter. Mary Catherine Lamb made quilts to both honour and reframe traditional Roman Catholic iconography. Brought up in a devout Catholic family, Lamb rediscovered holy cards given to her as a child while cleaning out her deceased mother's home in 1986. Experiencing a fresh affection for these objects, Lamb recalled a renewed sense of promise and security imparted by the depictions of saints and angels. Fascinated by the religious iconography, Lamb resolved to respond to the artefacts through quilting, saying:

It was a revelation to me to realize I could embrace the images in a completely different way, on my own terms. It could incorporate playfulness and irreverence. But it also has a little bit of grief and yearning for the security of the past.

Like many traditional and contemporary quiltmakers, Lamb constructed her quilts with secondhand fabrics. She also used a block construction process, drawing images she wanted to include and breaking them down into units that only make a readable narrative when pieced back together. Lamb deliberately fractured the pieces so that they didn't always meet precisely, cultivating an experiential sense of displacement. For Saint Anthony’s Torment (below), several blocks were rotated before being fixed to adjacent squares. Similar to a slide puzzle, this approach created a unique sense of movement within the finished quilt, and a sense of ongoing expansion.

The International Honor Quilt (also known as the International Quilting Bee) is a collective feminist art project initiated in 1980 by Judy Chicago as a companion piece to The Dinner Party. The piece is a collection of 539 two-foot-long quilted triangles that honour women from around the world. Chicago gifted the collection to the University of Louisville Hite Art Institute in 2013 to be available for research and exhibition.

In the early 21st century, quilting drew on modern art and design while re-contextualizing traditional quilt-making techniques. Modern quilts are different from art quilts. While art quilts are designed specifically for hanging or mounting, modern quilts are created with practical use in mind. Influenced by historic and contemporary trends, modern quilters draw inspiration from a wide variety of makers and quilts. According to the Modern Quilt Guild, a modern quilt is:

...primarily functional and inspired by modern design. Modern quilters work in different styles and define modern quilting in different ways, but several characteristics often appear which may help identify a modern quilt. These include, but are not limited to: the use of bold colors and prints, high contrast and graphic areas of solid color, improvisational piecing, minimalism, expansive negative space, and alternate grid work. 'Modern traditionalism' or the updating of classic quilt designs is also often seen in modern quilting

While traditional quilts have relied on regularly repeating designs, symmetrical balance, sashing, borders, often complicated patchwork and simplistic quilting, modern quilts thrive on asymmetry, minimalist designs, and a pronounced improvisational style with unique arrangements of blocks, settings and stitching. Vibrant colours and prints, graphics, high contrast and solid-coloured areas and negative spaces are all attributes of modern improvised quilts.

Through the ancient ivory pharaoh to contemporary art, the practical and aesthetic value of quilting has assured its presence in traditional and modern textile practice for thousands of years. From subversive feminist pieces to the traditional familiarity of quilting practices, quilts have instilled comfort, warmth and beauty, but they have also been used as a mode of articulating resourcefulness, ingenuity, modernity and recontextualization.




Megan Kennedy is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in Canberra, Australia. More of her work can be viewed on her website or Instagram.


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