The Evolution Of Quilting: Quilts Then And Now

“There is no antique more expressive of our foremothers than patchwork, which, in the main, took the form of bed-quilts. Pieced or appliquéd, the quilt has been, in America, a wholly feminine creation.”

~ Ruth E. Finley (1929)
Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them

Traditional quilt pattern





Play with variations in color and texture for a visually appealing quilt!
Weeds And Tweeds provide a twist on traditional classic fabrics.






The most traditionally feminine art form in American history is the quilt. While historical evidence suggests that quilting existed in ancient cultures such as that of China and Egypt dating back to at least 3500 BC, quilting in America is often thought of being most closely associated with America’s colonial roots.


Early American Quilting


America’s quilting traditions came courtesy of European settlers, who had become familiar with the use of quilting as a means of creating armor for soldiers in battle. At the same time, quilted clothing and quilted bed coverings (known today as “the quilt”) became popular among those who were not on the field of battle. Quilts quickly became a means of displaying handicraft talent and were decorated with a variety of intricate needlework designs. While current designs more often display pieced quilting techniques, earlier quilts were often made in the whole-cloth style, making use of a single piece of cloth, stitched with complex and beautiful designs.


American colonists brought quilting with them, though patchwork quilts most often thought of as historical designs in this country didn’t really become popular until the 18th century. After the Civil War, fabrics became more readily available, and thus patchwork quilting grew in popularity.


The Beginning Of Block Quilting


The 19th century saw the rise of block quilting (repetition of a pattern on many blocks of quilting fabric) in the United States. Block quilting offered the ability to divide the work of a quilt among many quilters who could then carry their work with them and store each block of quilting fabric separately until the squares were ready to be joined to create the fabric quilt top. As a result of the emergence of block quilting, the art of quilting became a much more social endeavor, and the so-called quilting bee arose as a popular form of social gathering for women. Not only was this a wonderful form of creating community for women, but it was also a means of sharing new patterns and designs for creating quilts among friends.


In the quilting communities of the United States, another form of quilting emerged known as album quilting. Album quilts tell a story or memorialize an event through the use of blocks, each with a different appliqué or pieced pattern of quilting fabric. These too were made communally, and many different quilters would make a block or several to put together for the final quilt.


The Rise Of Machine Quilting


The 19th century saw a technological breakthrough in the creation of quilts as a result of the invention of the sewing machine. Prior to the sewing machine, quilts could take years to create. With a sewing machine, quilts could be completed in weeks or days. While today’s sewing machines often come with a wide variety of custom stitches and patterns, this was not the case with early sewing machines.


The Great Depression in the late 1920s and 1930s changed the face of quilting again. Creating quilts was a fun and creative outlet with a very practical side during these challenging economic times. No more was there delineation between “quilting fabric” and clothing fabric – fabric was fabric! During the Depression, creating quilts from pieces of fabric recycled from otherwise worn out clothing, cloth flour or sugar sacks, and any other free source of material was a way of creating something of value from something that today would likely be discarded. It was a way of being practical and frugal, while at the same time being independent and even having fun.


The rise of World War II caused a decrease in the number of women quilting as they went into the workplace to fill jobs left vacant by men who had gone off to war. There simply wasn’t time to work outside the home, raise a family, tend a victory garden – and create handmade items like quilts. After the war ended, many women remained in the workplace, had similar issues with the lack of time for outside pursuits. At the same time, items that were handmade began to be considered inferior to those produced by machines and sold in stores.


The 1970s saw the beginning of the modern-day interest in quilting as an art. The patriotism of the country’s bicentennial saw resurgence in interest as people sought to commemorate America’s history by creating these works of art from the country’s past.


:  Modern Patterns




Modern patterns and lots of contrast are popular choices for 2013.
Mango Tango fabrics to emulate this look.








Quilting Today: Computerized Quilting


Today, the evolution of quilting includes a debt of gratitude to the electronic age for both the creation of quilts and the dissemination of ideas across the country and around the world. Modern sewing and quilting machines include computerized components to create intricately quilted patterns on the surface of a quilt in detail reminiscent of the hand quilting of eras past. Digital photography and the internet provides a means for wholesale quilt fabric distributors in major cities to show their colorful quilting fabric bolts to quilt designers in the smallest towns of the country. Social media provides online forums for quilting enthusiasts to find and encourage each other all around the world.


The future of quilting is yet to be written, though it is likely that technology and social media will continue to impact the development of this art for ages to come.


About the Author:

Suzann Smolarek is part of Rubenstein & Ziff, Inc/The Quiltworks. Since the 1920s, they’ve been a full line distributor of retail, manufacturing and industrial fabrics, specialty fabrics, wholesale quilting supplies, notions, and quilting informational books & patterns


Suzann Smolarek

1055 American Blvd E

Minneapolis MN 55420

Phone: 952-854-1460


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