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The Fabric of History

What can be found in your mother’s attic or on the walls of the Smithsonian? What can be made of velvet and silk or muslin and yarn. What can be used for warmth or for décor. What can tell a story or keep a secret. What can be either old or new, classic or modern, patterned or abstract, stitched or tacked? The answer to this riddle is easy - it is the common quilt.

Actually, it is an inaccurate word to describe the variety of bedcovers we refer to as “quilts.” The term “quilt” comes from the Latin “culcita” meaning a stuffed sack. Used as a noun, the word means a three-layer stitched article. Used as a verb, it means the act of stitching three layers together. So, a knitted afghan or a crocheted blanket technically cannot be called a quilt. However, there are many different styles and types of padded fabric creations and over the centuries and around the world they have been used for all kinds of purposes - from clothing to armor.

In our country, the quilt originated as a necessity, a way to use what was available to make bed covers for warmth or door hangings to keep out the cold. Early American women needed to be resourceful. They had to spin and weave or else spend their precious money to buy imported fabric to sew the clothes for the family. Nothing went to waste so when a shirt became too worn to mend it would be cut up for the scrap bag. When enough pieces filled the bag, they could be sewn together to make a sheet. As an old, purchased blanket became worn it was used for filler between two such sheets. The layers were then stitched through to ensure they would not come apart. These handmade quilts were a strictly practical means to keep warm, not deliberately planned heirlooms. It wasn’t until fabric was manufactured in America and became more affordable that artistic quilting developed.

By the 1800’s, thousands of pieced quilts were being made by hand - from simple patches sewn together to more complex and uniquely designed creations. Some were fashioned of whole cloth sheets - often called counterpanes - which were sewn together with elaborate patterns of stitches. Patchwork quilts were made of fabric pieces cut into specific shapes, sewn together to make eye pleasing designs and then layered and quilted. There were also “tufted” quilts where the layers were simply tied through in various places to keep the filling from shifting or bunching. Appliqué quilts - also called “laid on quilts” - had the design pieces sewn on to the top or cover of the quilt; embroidered quilts had the design sewn on in colorful threads and stitches. Quilting “bees” or gatherings where women worked together to quilt became popular social events in rural areas where several quilts could be completed in a single day.

By the 1900’s, quilting became more of an art than a necessity. With the invention of the sewing machine, women were able to sew together their pieces more quickly allowing more time for intricate hand quilting.

Now, in the 21st century, machine quilting has developed into a new art form. Using computers and modern sewing machines, quilters are able to create elaborate designs that stitch together fabrics in a matter of hours rather than weeks. An entire industry is dedicated to producing fabric patterns, colors and design templates that allow women and men (yes, men like to quilt, too) to create unique quilts that can serve as beautiful bed coverings, colorful wall hangings or fashion accessories.

An exhibit of quilts made or owned by residents of the tri-state area will be on display at the Fort Steuben Visitor Center from April 4-28, Monday through Friday from 10 am to 4 pm. The event is free, but you can vote for your favorite quilt by making a $1 donation.

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