Alabama beauty, Ashland rose, Brunswick star are not the names of flowers or birds, instead they are just a few of the thousands of different types of blocks used for making American quilts. For a long period of modern American history, quilts were one of the main means of women’s personal and artistic expression. They became a unifying force, an interest shared, while quilt gatherings provided a support service and mutual encouragement.
But what exactly is a quilt?
Basically a quilt is a bedcover or bedspread. These were initially made from two layers of cloth. At some point it was discovered that by adding a filling between the two layers it was possible to significantly increase the amount of warmth created. It was also quickly learnt that it was necessary to secure these layers together in some manner and that a series of small running stitches was the solution. This became one of the most popular techniques of quilting.
Quilting dates back for at least three thousand years. Ancient examples have been found at archaeological excavations in various Central Asian countries. Quilting was used for a range of objects, including floor coverings, wall hangings, as well as boots.
Bedspreads decorated with quilting were made in Scandinavia and Europe long before they were being made in America, with some of the most elaborate extant examples dating from the 14th century and originating from Sicily (the famous Tristan Quilt, made with trapunto or padded quilting), while later ones come from Britain, France, Germany, Sweden and The Netherlands. These quilts were made in a variety of techniques, including what is now called English paper piecing (using a card template) and ‘wholecloth’ quilting (quilts made from one piece of cloth).
Introduction of quilts into the US
When the Mayflower and the Pilgrims arrived in America in 1620 there were no bed quilts on board, but the settlers would have had the basic skills and knowledge of quilt making. The earliest surviving American quilts are made using the so-called wholecloth technique, but in later years quilts were being made that consisted of three layers. In the early 19th century the top layer often consisted of patchwork, made out of blocks. By the 1850’s, a typical American quilt was thus defined as being a covering for a bed that was made from three layers of cloth, with a patchwork top layer. The use of blocks seems to have been developed for convenience, as it was easier to draft a small design in a square rather than on a full quilt.
Amish and Mennonite quilts
Two related religious groups have had a particular influence on American quilts. These are the Amish and the Mennonites. The Amish are a traditional, Christian group who are known for their simple way of life, plain dress and dislike of modern technology. They originated in the late 17th and early 18th centuries among the Swiss German Anabaptists and a man called Jakob Amman, hence the name of Amish. In the early 18th century, many of the Anabaptists and followers of Amman emigrated to Pennsylvania, US, and to Canada. The patchwork top layers of the Amish quilts are characterised by graphic, often symmetrical designs made with solid-coloured fabrics that are often made from the same material that is used for Amish clothing. Although these quilts have simple designs, the quilting itself can be very complex. A popular quilting pattern among the Amish is the feather motif.
In the late 19th century the Amish split up into the Old Order Amish and the Amish Mennonites. The Mennonites are named after Menno Simons (1496-1561), from Friesland (now a province of The Netherlands). They are a mixed Anabaptist group who believe in a different version of the mission and ministry of Jesus than the official Roman Catholic and later Protestant doctrines. Over the years Mennonites have migrated to many parts of the world, including America, and they were joined by some of the Amish, who subsequently became known as the Amish Mennonites, or simply dropped the name of Amish. Mennonite quilts tend to be much lighter and brighter than Amish quilts, especially as they use figured fabrics.
Social functions (quilting bees)
A quilting bee is basically a social gathering based around the activity of quilting. This may be a regular meeting on a weekly or monthly basis, or a special occasion such as quilting a finished top by a group of people for a bride-to-be. In the latter case, there would probably be other activities and food would be brought to share, there may even be music. One of the most important features is the opportunity to talk and chatter with other women, which was said to sound like ‘bees in a hive’, hence the term quilting bee.
One of the most famous groups is the Gee’s Bend quilters’ quilting bees This is a group of African American women who live in the isolated hamlet of Gee’s Bend in Alabama. The quilts made in Gee’s Bend are regarded as being simply made and with a distinctive free form, using whatever materials are available to them.
Over the last two hundred years, many bees have come together to create group quilts, which were produced to support charities, events and movements, such as the Red Cross, the American Civil Rights movement and the AIDS epidemic support groups, to name just a few.
Quilt competitions have been held since the early 19th century at State and County Fairs, even at rodeos. Mostly, people were competing for ribbons and the kudos of winning, but some competitions did occasionally feature cash prizes. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, the National Quilt shows started to offer cash prizes that were sponsored by quilt related companies. The prizes gradually became larger and larger. The American Quilt Society (AQS) show in Paducah, for example, came up with the idea of a ‘purchase prize’, where the ‘Best of Show’ quilt earned a cash prize, and the quilt would go to the AQS museum. By the early 21st century there are quilt shows all over the US, from local guilds putting on their own show, to ones held by state-wide organisations.