By Lynn Blamires Content Writer for My Local Utah
Quilts have played an important role in the fabric of the nations of the world. There is evidence that the king of the First Egyptian Dynasty wore a cloak or mantle that appears to be quilted.
Quilting Introduced by the Crusaders
According to Wikipedia, quilting was introduced by Crusaders in the12th century in Europe. A quilted garment called a “gambeson” or “aketon” was worn under armor to prevent chaffing.
It later developed into the doublet – a snug fitting jacket shaped and fitted to a man’s body. It was popular in Spain and then spread to Western Europe. It was an essential part of fashionable men’s clothing for 300 years until the early 1600s.
The Tristan Quilt
The oldest decorative quilt in existence today is the Tristan Quilt. It was made in Sicily about 1360. While only two pieces of the original quilt exist today, the tragic love story of Tristan and Isolde is woven into its fabric.
Early American Functional Quilts
Early quilts in America were more functional than decorative. They covered doorways and windows to keep out the cold. With money being tight, material came from rags or old clothing. Old worn quilts were patched together or taken apart to make a usable one.
In “The History of Quilting” by Barb Bergquist, it states, “In the early 1800s, whole cloth quilts became popular. The beauty of these quilts was not in the fabric or colors, but in the stitching and/or cording work done on them. Applique became popular in the mid1700s, but it was only the wealthy that could afford the expensive fabrics that went into these early applique quilts.”
Quilting by Pioneer Women
“Quilting may well have been a relaxing activity for a pioneer woman, especially when the women … would gather at each other’s home for a quilting bee. Whether (it was) a social event for these early women, or the result of a gathering of the community … these times were often the highlight of … a challenging life.”
Quilting Among the Slaves
“With the establishment of slavery also came the development of a unique look. The skilled quilters among the slaves often spent their days working on quilts for their owners’ … and then would spend their limited free time creating quilts for their family members … using any fabric scraps they could find. Often a mismatch of fabrics, colors and shapes, these quilts had a unique beauty of their own that told the story of their struggles.”
Civil War Quilts
Quilting during the Civil War varied from the Union and Confederate States. In the north, quilts were made with patriotic patterns and sold to support wounded soldiers. Others were made with anti-slavery quotes to support the abolitionists cause. Log Cabin patterns were introduced with high quality silk, wool and cotton materials. There were about 250,000 quilts made to support the Union.
In the South, women sewed quilts with high quality fabric for the war effort. They made and sold “gun boat” quilts to buy gun boats. Later they were sold to fund hospitals.
Quilts and the Underground Railway
Quilts played an important role in the Underground Railway that helped slaves escape conditions in the South. The log cabin quilt design was used with a balance of light and dark colored fabrics. The center was a red or yellow block signifying a welcome candlelit window. If the center block was black, it indicated a stop on the Underground Railway.
The Panguitch Quilt Walk Story
Quilts are an important part of the history of the little town of Panguitch, Utah. Pioneers came over a rugged section of the Spanish Trail through Bear Valley to settle Panguitch.
Situated at an elevation of 6,600 feet, the growing season is short. Crops were planted but didn’t mature by the time the winter of 1864-65 set in. It was extra cold and the snow was deep. The settlers were running out of food.
The closest supplies were either one hundred and fifteen miles to the north in Gunnison, or forty miles to the west over the difficult Bear Valley Road in Parowan. Seven men were sent to Parowan, but they had to abandon their wagons at the head of Bear Valley due to deep snow.
Proceeding on foot, the snow became waist deep and they could go no further. Deciding to pray for help, as they spread a quilt to kneel, they realized that they didn’t sink in the snow. Gathering the quilts they had planned to use as bed rolls, they laid them on the deep snow and walked forward. In a process of laying and retrieving quilts, they made their way to Parowan.
The return trip was made more difficult due to the weight of the flour they carried, but they made it. It was enough to hold settlers over the winter. Each year Panguitch celebrates the Quilt Walk by displaying handmade quilts all along the route through town.
The Sewing Machine
The development of the sewing machine did much to boost the art of quilting. It meant that quilts did not have to be hand stitched. As the sewing machine improved so did the quality of the quilts. They became more colorful as new material of similar weights were used instead of rags and used clothing.
World War Quilts
Ms. Begquist also related that, “During WWI, women were urged to make quilts to save the blankets for the men fighting overseas. WWII saw quilting as a way to raise funds for the Red Cross with the creation of signature quilts. The signature quilt was created by selling … citizens the opportunity to have their name embroidered on a quilt for a small fee. The completed quilt would then be raffled off … and the proceeds were used by the Red Cross to support their efforts in the war.”
The Quilts of the Great Depression
During the Great Depression, quilting reverted back to a necessity. The idea of quilting as a practical, cost-effective, and beautiful home décor quilting project became valued. Women used fabric scraps from feed sacks, clothing, and blankets to make wildly popular patterns.
Today, contemporary quilting practices take on a range of meanings for quilters. For many, quilting is a relaxing craft and an enjoyable pastime. For some, quilting is a way to maintain tradition and heritage. For others, quilting is a purposeful and artistic endeavor.
Wimmers in Layton
I was invited to spend some time at Wimmers, a sewing shop in Layton. A group of ladies get together every Wednesday to make quilts. Louise Price and Linda Nicoson are sisters whose mother got her children into quilting. Louise told me that her sewing room is her happy place.
Mona Case and Mary Ann Davis are sisters who are a part of this weekly gathering whose purpose it is to sew quilts. Cathy Thomson and Connie Collen are friends who are also a part of this social group who have a combined quilting experience of over 100 years.
They all agreed that quilting is a passion with a strong social element. They feel a strong connection with pioneers and history.
Louise told me that she has made 107 quilts. She became hooked on quilting and has gone from the larger strip piecing to sewing tiny pieces into quilt blocks.
I learned that the ladies plan to sew a block a month during the year. By December, they have 12 blocks sewn together for a quilt top. Then batting and the back sheet are added and all sewed together with a long arm sewing machine.
Sew n Save in Clearfield
My friend Carol Anderson is part of group headed by Sandy Hansen of Sew n Save who get together monthly on the second Saturday of the month as a part of a quilt block of the month. For a small annual fee, they receive material for a quilt block and like the group at Wimmers, they will have 12 blocks that will come together for a quilt at the end of the year.
Carol has made well over a hundred quilts – heirlooms for her family. Sandy invited me to one of their Tuesday gatherings where I was treated to a “show-and-tell” where I saw some of the beautiful quilts members of their group have made.
A Quilt from My Grandma
Quilting is alive and well in our day. The pandemic helped make it even more popular. They are valued as works of art, not only for the work that goes into them, but what of themselves the maker puts into the quilt. The gift of a handmade quilt is a gift from the heart. I have a quilt that my grandmother made that I consider a treasure.