Research point – traditional craft techniques and historical processes


Quilting has been used within many communities through history, as a way of making precious cloth go further when clothes have worn through. I remember my own grandmother making two single quilts for my parents from cloth from clothes that my sister and I had grown out of. Another reference to this type of quilting through recycling old clothing or scraps of cloth is Dolly Parton’s ‘Coat of many colours’. A biographical song about growing up poor and how her mother made her a coat made from fabric scraps that she loved but friends at school persecuted her because she didn’t have a new bought coat. She loved it because as it was made her mum told stories and poured love into every stitch.

Some quilts began to take on meaning as part of their creation, sometimes about the maker or sometimes about the person who would be gifted the hand made quilt. This was particularly true of quilts made by women migrating across America. Recently I picked up Quilts and women of the Mormon Migrations by Mary Bywater Cross in a charity shop. This book splits the making of these quilts into 4 sections:

  • 1830-1848 this was a time when huge numbers of Mormons moved from the northern states of America and Canada to Ohio and Missouri in search of Zion.
  • 1849-1855 they settled in Zion (Nauvoo, Illinois) but we’re driven west by hostile neighbours.
  • 1856-1869 settled in predominantly Utah and focused on bringing in new converts.
  • 1870-1900 the final settlement.

In each section the quality, types and meanings of the quilts is explained. From quilts made wi fine fabrics to simpler quilts made whilst travelling in difficult conditions. Log cabin quilts traditionally represents the difficulty of acquiring logs to build cabins and barns. What the quilts were made from also tells the tales of these women’s difficulties, better fabrics are seen in the early quilts as well as the later quilts whilst the women were more settled. Later quilts were often made as a communal activity with groups of women contributing towards one quilt for a special occasion for example births or weddings. Patterns referenced items that were familiar to their daily lives for example sunrises or types of trees. Many techniques were used as well, techniques like embroidery and appliqué.

Other quilt makers include african american slaves one such person was Harriet Powers. Harriet was from rural Georgia and used traditional African appliqué techniques to record events and stories on her quilts. Her quilts are among the best nineteenth-century Southern quilts. In the 1880’s she sold one of her quilts to a teacher for $5 it is now in the Smithsonian.

Suffragette’s used quilting techniques to make their banners for woman’s rights.

Another particularly fascinating quilting tradition was ‘mourning quilts’. Made as a way for women to work through their grief and were often used as a covering over the coffin and when there was no coffin it was used as a shroud. Often made of fabrics from the deceased, shirting or uniforms particularly during the civil war era. Some mourning quilts were made whilst the person was still alive but in their later years. Another type of mourning quilt was the graveyard quilt literally depicting the passing of whole families with a visual representation of a graveyard in the centre into which an appliquéd coffin with the name of the deceased would be embroidered. An example of one such quilt is one by Elizabeth Roseberry Mitchell in 1839.

Many artists today use quilts within their practice these include examples such as Tracey Emin.

Artist and former urban planner Kathryn Clark created a series of graphics quilts based on maps of home foreclosures.

“They are meant to illustrate the affect of the financial crisis. The lot locations are completely random. Quilts act as a functional memory, an historical record of difficult times. It is during times of hardship that people have traditionally made quilts, often resorting to scraps of cloth when so poor they could not afford to waste a single thread of fabric,” said Clark.

Pauline burbidge is another artist using quilting as part of her contemporary art practice.

There is an interesting article on quilt making as a contemporary art practice on the independent website here…

Nowadays many people still make quilts to commemorate special occasions, graduations, births, marriages. People also make them as charitable items to be sold to raise money.