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Today’s collectors covet artisan quilts selling for up to $100,000, but quilted fabric had utilitarian origins, providing warmth and comfort as far back as the Crusades.
Quilting first “became known in Europe during the Crusades, when it was learned that the Turks wore several thicknesses of fabric quilted together under their armor,” according to Robert Bishop’s and Jacqueline M. Atkins’s “Folk Art in American Life” (Studio, 1995). “In northern Europe, where the climate is often harsh … this technique offered warmth as well as protection, and it was rapidly extended to bedcovers and various forms of clothing.”
In 18th-century Colonial America, quilts were utilitarian textiles used for bed covers and sometimes hung over doors and windows for insulation. The quilt was such a mundane part of everyday life that the English and Dutch settlers who made them saw no need for recording their existence.
Those early settlers were masterful recyclers. Out of necessity, they didn’t discard anything that could be put to use somehow. Worn blankets were patched; if they were too ragged even for patching, they were sewn together or used for padding between other blankets. These were not works of art; rather, they were functional items for the sole purpose of keeping people warm.
The longest-surviving American quilts tend to be whole-cloth calamancos in which the glazed wool top, often of imported fabric, was layered with wool batting and a home-woven linen or linsey-woolsey (a linen-wool blend fabric) back, then closely quilted in decorative motifs. Later, such quilts included simple large-scale patchwork.
Utilitarian quilts were used until they fell apart, so it is not surprising that there is little historically to document that tradition in quilt making. Decorative quilts, because they sometimes received special care, became preserved objects and have been discovered in estate inventories.
Carol Moczygemba is a retired editor of Texas Co-op Power.