Happy Thanksgiving!!! … and earliest (American) quilts

For many across the U.S. the celebration of Thanksgiving is in full swing throughout the 50 states of America and most likely all its far-flung military/colonial outposts. The holiday itself has become little more than an excuse to gorge oneself on poultry and watch either the Macy’s Parade or some TV sports event or other – if you’re lucky and plan your schedule right, you might catch both!

Momentary snark aside, Thanksgiving does provide a nice opportunity for family members to get together, even from diverse parts of the country, to share a feast, prepare food as a community, and through the act of togetherness express gratitude at health, bounty, and togetherness.

In that sense, the spirit of Thanksgiving does live on, from its beginnings as a large party that early settlers gave in response to a year of less-than-usual bear maulings, warring with natives, famine, and yellow fever.

Thinking about this holiday made me, as a quilter, think back to the earliest quilts. I’m sure that the moms and various ladies of the earliest colonies practiced quilting, very much as we do now, and I became curious to explore more about the history of this fine craft.

Tristan Quilt – Victoria & Albert Museum

According to Wikipedia, the earliest quilting might have occured in ancient Egypt, but was first seen in Europe around the time of the Crusades. A lot of the quilting technique was reserved for clothing and undergarments, though inevitably the techique was used in bedcovers and decorative tapestries. The earliest known quilt astonishingly dates from the 14th century, relates the star-crossed lovers story of Tristan & Isolde, and was made in Italy.

Connecticut Quilt pre – 1799 – The Quilt Index

Quilt making in the United States became popular towards the end of the 18th century. Apparently, the idea that frontierspeople were making do by piecing together worn out clothing and leftover scraps is mostly myth, for some historians sustain that, in fact, quilting always was an elite pastime, and that the finest fabrics were used. Though it is true that most women were busy spinning, weaving and sewing in order to clothe their families, commercial blankets or woven coverlets were a more economical bedcovering for most people.

“Medallion Quilt” c. 1830 by Elizabeth Welsh – Brooklyn Museum

Nevertheless, the newfound accessibility of cheaper, plentiful and varied fabric that the Industrial Revolution of the mid-19th century caused created two events that made quilting more common to all: women had no longer an obligation to spin, weave, or otherwise create their own fabric, and the larger availability of fabrics made the raw materials of quilting less expensive as well. The invention of the sewing machine made all this even more possible. By the 1870s many houses had a Singer or other sewing machine.

“Soldierquilt” by Quiltpatch – Own work.

From the Civil War to the AIDS epidemic, quilts have been used to raise funds and raise awareness for various causes. They have been used by generations of women to express creativity and pass on warmth to descendents. Many styles, from block patterns to crazy quilts, to geographically designed and preferred styles, have existed, depending on the local aesthetic and materials available. But whatever can be said for the history of quilting, it possesses a vitality that does not die.

And we can be thankful for that!

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