History of Quilting in America

A brief history of quilting in America + current trends!

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Quilting as we know it today is a uniquely American invention.  Yes, there were pre-cursors to it in Europe long before the Pilgrims came, but it changed and developed into something quite different here.  The latin word for “quilt” means ‘stuffed sack.”  In medieval times, many, many layers of fabric were sewn together with the running stitch that we know in quilting today to form a protective layer under soldier’s armor called a Gambeson.

There are many different types of quilts:

  • Patchwork Quilts
  • Appliqué Quilts
  • Whole Cloth Quilts
  • Yo-Yo Quilts
  • Art Quilts


There are not many records of early American quilts.  Women made the things that their families used on a daily basis without thinking to document them.  Homespun fabric and handmade quilts were a necessity, not an art form.  Patchwork quilting came into existence quite naturally.  The amount of time that it took for a family to first buy the sheep necessary to grow wool or raise crops for cotton, then manufacture it into thread, weave it into cloth, and turn it into clothing and other household items was enormous!  Frugality was a fact of life in a way that we can never comprehend today.  When a child outgrew a piece of clothing and there was no other child in line to wear it next, the woman of the house cut it up and made it into something else.  Patches quickly became patchwork, and scraps of fabric found their way onto beds across the nation.  Naturally, women love to trade ideas and try beautiful things they’ve seen, and so, from cottage industry an art form was born.


Quilting flourished between 1750 & 1850 as manufactured fabrics became more easily accessible.  Women began to spend years on heirloom quilts, which were typically wholecloth and medallion quilts, made to show off to friends and family.  With more time to devote to her quilting, the early American woman was able to exercise creative abandon.  Appliqué quilts came into fashion among the wealthy that were able to import more expensive fabrics and spend enormous amounts of time creating elaborate designs.


It may be surprising to note that Amish women did not join the quilting craze of the 1700’s at the beginning.  They brought traditions of feather bedding with them from Europe and only gradually admitted American quilting into their rich heritage as they had more and more contact with the New World.

Amish quilts are revered and coveted today. They often have distinctly traditional designs; with some of the most recognizable being the black and gem toned color blocked quilts. Many are hand quilted by groups of Amish women together in Quilting Bees, which means you’ll see a variety of quilt stitching lengths on the same quilt depending on which quilter was working on which section of the quilt.


Yo-yo quilts came into fashion in the early 1900’s, around the war years.  (1920’s-1940’s). It’s not surprising to note that with the scarcity of the Great Depression, and the world wars, women turned to using up scraps of fabric again.  There is some speculation that fabric yo-yo’s are named after the toy that gained great popularity at the same time. Whatever the reason, it’s certain that women loved them because of their portability and frugality.

Yo-yo’s are one of the easiest forms of quilting to carry with you.  You can make them in any size and use new or re-purposed fabric.  Brits call them Suffolk Puffs, with some evidence that points to their origin among the poor in the county of Suffolk, in 1601.  It’s sometimes called, “Suffolk Puff Patchwork Quilting,” and looks the same as it does in America.


What will the future of quilting in America look like? With new inventions to aid the way, it’s hard to say. Digital products allow for programmable stitches and a whole host of techniques that enhance photo transfer and/or the creation of unique fabrics from the comfort of home!

More women than ever are also going Green in their quilting and finding new and innovative ways to use up every last scrap of fabric. As we’ve seen with the start of quilting & the popularity of yo-yo quilting during the world war years, this is both new and old. The new part of it is how they are using the scraps and the technology that is available to aide the process!

Modern quilts are also highly customized! In today’s world, most quilts are not made from scraps of fabric cut out of worn out clothing. They dazzle the eye with brilliant colors and incredible designs! Quilters have an almost limitless supply of patterns- both free and available for nominal prices at their local quilt shops or on the web. There are classes available everywhere, and tutorials for every level. Limits in creativity are more a matter of the quilter’s willingness to take risks and try new things, than available materials and ideas. Nearly anything is possible today.


Quilting today is not limited to just bedspreads to wrap up with. Today’s artists can choose from patterns and ideas of every shape and size. Beginners may want to start with a quilted pillow, table runner, ornament, or other small object. More advanced quilters are looking at new ways to apply their art everyday. You might look around a quilter’s home and see:

  • Quilted Shower Curtain
  • Quilted Purses, Diaper Bags, or Backpacks
  • Miniature Quilts
  • Quilted Aprons
  • Wall Hangings
  • Mug Rugs
  • Quilted Clothing
  • Furniture Re-upholstered with Quilts
  • Hand-made Oven Mitts/Hot Pads
  • Casserole Warmers
  • Christmas Tree Skirt
  • Christmas Ornaments
  • Quilted Gifts
  • And more…


Women need the strength of one another in our modern day just as in days gone by. So, it’s no surprise that one of the elements driving today’s innovation is the same thing that developed the art originally- women gathering to help each other. In modern quilt guilds, just as in days gone by, women gather, share ideas, friendship, support, and love for one another over the common thread of quilting.

Most quilt guilds are advertised through local quilt shops and may have rules governing the number of quilters who can join before the group needs to subdivide to keep it manageable. Guilds often offer classes, guest speakers, and weekly work sessions in smaller themed groups, as well as annual trips and other fun events.

If you can’t find a guild close by, you may want to consider starting one! Churches are often open to hosting such groups, and all it takes is a few friends to get a group going. In no time at all, you’ll have a lively group with a lot going on! “If you build it-“ they will truly come!


There are more benefits of quilting than can easily be summarized here. They include:

  1. Friendship
  2. Talent Gained
  3. Memories
  4. Art Therapy
  5. A Visual Legacy
  6. A Place in Quilting History!

What’s the only bad thing about becoming a quilter? You may have to add a few more rooms onto your home for your fabric stash! Don’t worry. It’s a risk worth taking. 😉




“An exquisite and authoritative look at four centuries of quilts and quilting from around the world

Quilts are among the most utilitarian of art objects, yet the best among them possess a formal beauty that rivals anything made on canvas. This landmark book, drawn from the world-renowned collection of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, highlights the splendor and craft of quilts with more than 300 superb color images and details. Fascinating essays by two noted scholars trace the evolution of quilting styles and trends as they relate to the social, political, and economic issues of their time.
The collection includes quilts made by diverse religious and cultural groups over 400 years and across continents, from the Mediterranean, England, France, America, and Polynesia. The earliest quilts were made in India and the Mediterranean for export to the west and date to the late 16th century. Examples from 18th- to 20th-century America, many made by Amish and African-American quilters, reflect the multicultural nature of American society and include boldly colored and patterned worsteds and brilliant pieced and appliquéd works of art.
Grand in scope and handsomely produced, Four Centuries of Quilts: The Colonial Williamsburg Collection is sure to be one of the most useful and beloved references on quilts and quilting for years to come.” 






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