A SHORT INTRODUCTION TO PRE-COLONIAL QUILTING

by Lisa Evans, Independent Scholar, Massachusetts

The word "quilt" summons a host of images: thrifty pioneer housewives piecing elaborate patchworks for their families; album quilts signed by every member of a community as a gift for a departing mayor or pastor, or perhaps raffled for a worthy cause; perhaps even a wholecloth petticoat worn by a colonial dame as she danced with George Washington, or a brightly colored scrap quilt made by a grandmother or aunt during the Depression. The popular image of the quilt is of the quilt is modern, calico, and American.

The problem with this familiar stereotype is that it doesn't go far enough. Quilting may have reached its apogee in the glorious appliqued quilts of 19th century Baltimore, but it was practiced nearly two thousand years earlier. Quilted garments padded Crusader mail, quilted linens adorned Renaissance bedchambers, and quilted Evangelists were treasured at 15th century monasteries (Colby). The evidence is scattered and sometimes hard to recognize, but quilts and quilting were hardly alien to pre-colonial Europe.

HISTORY

The word quilt is derived from the Latin culcita, meaning a padded and tied mattress similar to a Japanese futon. Quilting is a needlework technique involving two or more layers of fabric, usually sandwiched with padding of some sort, stitched together in a decorative pattern. It appears to have originated in Asia sometime before the first century C.E. The first known quilted object is a quilted linen carpet dating from that time found in a Siberian cave tomb (Colby 1971). The central motifs (primarily animals, with abstract spirals on the borders) are worked in the backstitch, while the background is diamond quilted in a coarse running stitch. Whether the Siberians developed quilting on their own or learned it from outsiders, its advantages in such a cold climate are obvious: warmth without bulk, strength without stiffness, useable in everything from clothing to saddlecloths, and unusual enough to be traded for luxury goods.

That quilted objects were indeed traded is obvious from the next oldest quilted artifact, a spiral quilted slipper found in a rubbish tip in Samarkand, a major stop on the Silk Road between China and Europe (Liddell). The backstitch technique is identical to that used in the funerary rug. Quilting does not appear to have been done in Europe much before the 12th century, and is usually thought to have been brought back from the Middle East by the returning Crusaders (Colby 1971). However, a recent discovery from Germany indicates that quilted objects may have been known during the Dark Ages. A Merovingian tomb from the 5th century contained a wool twill pall quilted with Egyptian cotton (Rogers). Although the pall was obviously a luxury item, and almost certainly imported, it suggests that quilting was established enough in the Mediterranean to be traded to the less civilized north.

The next evidence of quilting in Europe appears in a French poem of the 12th century, La Lai del Desire. It mentions a "quilt of two sorts of silk cloth in a checkboard pattern, well made and rich" (Colby 1971). The 13th century German Parvizal also mentions a quilt in the Grail castle (Eschenbach), suggesting that bed quilts were fairly common in aristocratic circles in at least two countries. There is also a reference in a French inventory of 1297 to a ship captain in Marseilles owning a courtepointe, later the French word for quilt (Berenson).

Quilted clothing and armor began to appear in the 14th century, with quilted doublets and armor appearing in France, Germany and England (Colby 1971) and quilted tunics in Italy (Ibid). Quilted jacks and brigantines, often padded with metal plates, were produced by professional armorers in major cities such as Paris and London (Staniland), while the domestic articles could have been done either by professionals or individual household embroidery staffs. Quilting may have even worked its way down to the lower classes by then; a tiny 14th century Italian ivory shows St. Joseph, traditionally regarded as a peasant or lower class artisan, wearing a diamond quilted tunic (Colby). Quilting had clearly become part of the European needlework tradition.

The first surviving European bed quilts are three trapunto (or stuffed) quilts from the same Sicilian atelier. Two, one in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the other in the Bargello in Florence, are believed to have been made for a wedding in the 1390's (Young), while the remains of a third, in a private collection as late as World War II, may have been made for the royal house of Anjou (Loomis). All three show scenes from the Tristan legend, with the Anjou quilt including a border of the Seven Deadly Sins! The trio is worked in the same technique as the Siberian rug of 1200 years earlier: backstitched linen on linen around the decorative motifs, cotton stuffing in the trapunto sections, and running stitch quilting in the backgrounds.

A similar quilt, possibly of silk, is shown in the Flemish Bartolomeo Bermejo's 1450 painting The Death of the Virgin, placing quilting in the Netherlands by the 15th century (Lidz), while a German painting of 1500 (The Seefeld Miracle Panel, by Jorg Kolderer) shows a knight wearing a quilted, pieced tunic of horizontal red, black, and yellow (Gwinner). These early quilts and quilted objects, and virtually all surviving quilting until the 17th century, were of linen stuffed with raw cotton; if wool flocking was used for anything besides armor, it was far too attractive to moths to survive (Colby).

That quilting was not confined to Italy and Germany is evident from two 15th century French references. A Provencal inventory of 1426 mentions bedcovers worked with figures of Alexander and Solomon "in the style of Naples," almost unquestionably a reference to trapunto. Sixty years later the bedchamber of no less a figure than King Rene of Anjou contained a quilt "stitched with figures of men and women" (Berenson). Although the design of King Rene's quilt is unknown, the Seven Deadly Sins quilt referenced above featured heavily stuffed fleurs-de-lis, a device used by the House of Anjou. It is just possible that part of King Rene's quilt survived into this century, and may still be in an Italian castle!

The Renaissance brought increased trade with the Eastern countries where quilting originated. The Ottoman Empire had a native tradition of quilted bedcovers and caftans; surviving examples from the courts of 16th and 17th century sovereigns such as Suleiman the Magnificent and Selim the Grim are worked in the running stitch on silk broadcloth and brocade, sometimes in contrasting colors (Tezcan). Court ettiquette dictated that clothing be presented to foreign ambassadors, so it is probable that European diplomats posted to Constantinople returned with quilted caftans in their baggage.

This was also the time when European countries established colonies and trading posts in Asia. India had a strong native quilting tradition and quickly began producing export work in cotton and silk (the very word calico, later the name of the favorite quilting cotton, is derived from Calcutta). Portugal in particular imported "pintadoe quilts" from its Indian possessions (Rae), as well as palampores and unquilted spreads that were later worked up into "colchas" on the Iberian peninsula (Gillow). Indian quilters were given Portuguese emblem books and told to copy the artwork for the European trade (de Koning-Staple), resulting in scenes of European hunters coursing after elephants, or similarly odd mixtures of European and native design elements.

Regardless of the quality of the art, Indian quilts were as popular in Protestant England as in Catholic Portugal; the formidable Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury, owned at least one Bengali quilt of silk and cotton (Levey) in addition to others of unknown provenance. Other quilts appeared in inventories throughout England, and despite a tendency to refer to quilted petticoats as "quilts," enough of these appear in linen and bedroom inventories that make it clear that these were indeed intended as bed quilts, not garments (Colby, Girouard).

These import quilts were so popular that a native European tradition seems to have arisen by the late 16th century. Elaborate whole cloth silk quilts appeared in France, Italy, England, and the Iberian countries. These often featured ships and "exotic" motifs of "Mohammedans" in loincloths, leading to speculation that at least some commemorated the great naval battle of Lepanto (Lidz). Although some may have been made in India (leading to their frequent misidentification as Bengali), there is evidence suggesting that the chief source was the Mediterranean island of Chios, home to a native silk industry; the silk is not as wide or as fine as the Indian product, and the European design elements are more skillfully handled than in Indian work. A fine example was found in Cornwall in the early 90's (Quilt Treasures), while its near twin surfaced in the Winterthur Museum in Delaware (Lidz).

Not surprisingly, quilting became very popular among aristocratic circles. Quilts were expensive, beautiful, and warm, all desirable qualities for the upwardly mobile in the Little Ice Age of the late Renaissance. A spectacular 16th century example was made in Germany (a trapunto spread showing fantastic beasts and birds) (Staniland), while the bed chambers of Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury and her ward, Lady Arbella Stuart, contained no fewer than three quilts (in addition to enough pillows, blankets, carpets, and other linens to supply a small town for a year) (Girouard).

One Renaissance monarch seems to have been particular fond of quilts: Henry VIII of England. A household inventory of his court done in 1547 lists literally dozens of "quyltes" and "coverpointes" among the bed linens. The inventory itself contains references to quilts of "holland cloth" (linen or cotton), "bockeram" (cotton)," various types of silk (especially "sarceonett" and "tapheta," and "lynnen." Some of the quilts belonged to the King himself, while others were given to lesser member of the court, either as a sign of favor (his fifth queen, Catherine Howard, was given two dozen "gold and silver quilts" as a gift (Rae) or because they were too worn for the King's use (a musician was given an "old redde silk quylte, sore worne and with holes"). Among the more intriguing items are the following:

9078 Item twoo quiltes of turquey Silke paned white and grene conteyning either of theym in lengthe two yards three quarters di and one of theym conteyning in bredthe twoo yardes three quarters thother conteyning in bredthe twoo yards di lyned with grene bockeram.

9775 Item one Quilte of Lynnen clothe filled with wolle seuring for the kinges grace Bayne being of one bredthe quarter of the same clothe and in lengthe one yerde di scante [possibly to cover the king's ulcered legs].

10553 Item one Counterpoincte of Doulbe grene Sarceonett quilted iwth Cordiauntes of copper golde bordered rounde about withe flowrdeluces with a square in the myddes thereof with roses and pomgrannettes thinside beine of lynnen clothe stayned contaynynge in legthe three yerdes di and bredthe three yerdes skantte the same counterpoincte beine olde and worene.

The last quilt is particularly interesting; it was evidently of green silk quilted with gold or copper thread and backed with linen, with the fleur-de-lys of France in the border and a central medallion of roses and pomegranates. The combination of roses (the Tudor symbol) and pomegranates (the device of Katherine of Aragon) may indicate that the quilt was made specifically for Henry's first marriage. It was "olde and worene" and "stayned" in 1547, which would square with it being over twenty years old (Starkey).

TECHNIQUES

In its simplest form, quilting is simply decorative stitching designed to hold two or more layers of cloth and padding together. At least three methods were used to do this: the backstitch, the double running stitch, and the running stitch.

Backstitch quilting is the oldest technique, used in the 1st century Siberian rug (Colby). It is surprisingly fast and accurate, and by far the easiest stitch for working with raw cotton wadding It eventually gave way to the daintier running stitch as better materials became common.

Double running stitch was used in the Indo-Portuguese and Chiosan silk quilts of the late 16th and 17th centuries. It looked exactly like the backstitch on the top, with the added advantage of being reversible. Several 17th century silk quilts are indeed fully reversible, with the stitching matching the color of the "top." The most popular combination was a strong cochineal/madder magenta top and an indigo/weld olive green back, with at least one with a pale indigo blue top and light cochineal or madder pink back (Lidz).

The running stitch was used in the Siberian rug and the Sicilian wedding quilts, but only in the unpadded background sections; as stated above, it is all but impossible to produce fine, even running stitches through lumpy raw cotton. It became more and more popular as small needles, fine cotton and silk thread, and smooth, carded cotton became available. By the 18th century only the professionals of Marseilles used the backstitch, and that primarily in clothing (Berenson). The running stitch had become the standard quilting stitch and remains so to this day.

MATERIALS

Surviving pre-colonial quilts are usually of either linen or silk, worked in matching thread, and stuffed with cotton. Henry VIII's inventory references quilts stuffed with wool, but unfortunately no examples have survived (Starkey). Italian cotton guilds wove striped cottons specifically to back quilts, and the "bockeram" or cotton used to back Henry VIII's quilts may be evidence of Italian cotton goods (Mazzaoui).

The very earliest surviving quilts are natural linen, with motifs outlined in a darker color such as brown or gold; later examples were worked to match the quilt top (Colby). Silk came into vogue in the 16th and 17th centuries, with the Asian trade. The Chios quilts were made from an unusually narrow (27") silk inferior in quality to the Indian product, which tended to be wider (Lidz).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

--------------. Quilt Treasures of Great Britain. Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 1995.

Berenson, Kathryn. Quilts of Provence. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996.

Colby, Averil. Quilting. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971.

De Koning-Stapel, Hanne Vibeke. Silk Quilts. Chicago: Quilt Digest Press, 2000.

Eschenbach, Wolfram von, tr. Helen E. Mustard and Charles E. Passage. Parzival. New York: Random House, 1961.

Gillow, John, and Nicholas Barnard. Traditional Indian Textiles. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1993.

Girouard, Mark. A Country House Companion. Wigston: Magna Books, 1987.

Gwinner, Schnuppe von, tr. Edward Force. The History of the Patchwork Quilt. Schiffer Books: 1988.

Levey, Santina M. Elizabethan Treasures: The Hardwick Hall Textiles. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998.

Liddell, Jill, and Yuko Watanabe. Japanese Quilts. London: Cassell, 1991.

Lidz, Margaret Renner, "The Mystery of 17th Century Quilts," Antiques, December 1998.

Liu, Xinrui. Silk and Religion. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Loomis, R.S. & L.H. The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1938.

Mazzaoui, Mauren Fennell. The Italian Cotton Industry in the Later Middle Ages, 1100-1600. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Rae, Janet. Quilts of the British Isles. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1987.

Rogers, Penelope Walton, "Cotton in a Merovingian Burial in Germany," Archaeological Textiles Newsletter #27, Autumn 1998.

Staniland, Kay. Medieval Embroiderers. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

Starkey, David, ed. The Inventory of Henry VIII. London: Harvey Miller, 1998.

Tezcan, Hulye, and Selma Delibas, tr. J.M. Rogers. The Topkapi Saray Museum: Costumes, Embroideries and Other Textiles. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1986.

© 2003 Lisa Evans

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