Family quilting traditions have been passed on for generations since the 1600’s or even earlier. In those days, the women (sometimes the men too!) in the family created a quilt as present for a family member who is about to get married or was expecting a child. Quilts were considered as heirlooms and were treasured by the family. As a result, quilting traditions were also cherished and passed on for many generations. I have collected some hand quilting practices for this article and perhaps these cherished traditions could get you started on your own family quilting practice too!
The African-American Quilting Traditions
Less popular than African music and dance, the African-American quilting and textile tradition is influenced by four notable African civilizations. When African slaves were heavily trafficked in Southern United States, Central America and the Caribbean, the textile and quilting tradition of four distinct African regions intertwined so that by the time early African American quilting became a distinct tradition, it was already a combination of these varied quilting practices.
Of Reed Strips, Bright Colors and Large Shapes
In Africa, men worked on textiles and quilts but this practice disappeared when they were brought to the Americas as slaves and the women took over the quilting work. What was left of this practice is the use of reed strips in the African-American quilts. Also, in the olden times, to be able to recognize people from afar was very important for the many African warring tribes as well as for their hunting parties. For this reason, African quilts utilize bright colors and large shapes in textiles and this is also evident in their quilt making traditions.
Inventiveness and Multiple Uses of Patterns
Changing and recreating old patterns is sacred to many African tribes because it signifies the rebirth of the familial power of the quilt maker. It also helps to drive evil spirits away who are believed to follow a straight line when they travel. As such, a discontinuity in the pattern is designed to confuse and stall these malevolent spirits. This tradition can been seen in African American quilts that blend famous European American patterns such as the “Diamond Strip,” the “Log Cabin” and the “Wedding Ring” patterns with more traditional designs which are highlighted by the lack of straight lines and asymmetry.
Applique, Multiple Patterns and Keeping the Family’s Records
Often in African textiles and quilts, the number of patterns or changes in the pattern directly correlates to the owner's status. This tradition was especially important to royalty members and priests as it conveys prestige, power, status, and wealth to the wearer. Improvisation and multiple patterning also protect the quilter from anyone copying their quilts so that this particular tradition allows for a strong sense of ownership and the expression of creativity.
Harriet Powers‘ Bible Quilt show below made in 1886 is perhaps one of the best examples of this quilting tradition that also preserves African heritage and tells the stories of the bible. Using the applique technique, characters in the Bible Quilt are attached to a durable fabric. Popular among African tribes, this quilting practice continued up to the early African-American time in the US. Since they record family events like birth, marriage as well as faith and location, it gives us a cultural glimpse of life on the plantation.
Religious Symbols and Protective Charms
In many African quilts and textiles, the diamond and circle patterns are popular. They symbolize the life cycle where each of the points in the diamond pattern signifies the different life stages such as birth, marriage, rebirth, and others. Protective charms are also used in African quilts and textiles in the form of native scripts and symbols that are stitched into the patterns. These quilts are considered holy and they also represent intellect, power, and knowledge.
The use of charms in quilts is popular among African-American religious societies. These charms are usually made by a medicine woman or a priest and are designed according to the needs of the user and are attached to the quilt. As such, these quilts as said to heal and drive away evil spirits.
European-American Quilting History
I mentioned the fact that the African-American quilting tradition is not very well documented. The European-American quilting textile tradition, on the other hand, is only slightly better documented I've discovered.
Starting largely simply to provide warmth for the family members, especially during the winter months, quilting has been constantly evolving over the centuries. The European-American quilting tradition traces its roots back to Europe where quilting was a necessity as mothers and wives had to cover their families for basic warmth. Then it became a practice to make quilts as gifts for weddings or to commemorate births and even deaths in the family. And at times when ink and paper were sparse, quilts were also used to document historical events. It is important to note that when the Amish arrived in America from Europe, they created a beautiful and lasting quilting tradition, using simple designs with strict patterns. The Amish have contributed a lot to the European-American quilting traditions, some of which are still observed until today.
Necessity Quilts and the Contemporary Jeans Quilt Patterns
Necessity, as the saying goes, is the mother of all invention and in the case of quilt making for early European-American settlers, necessity also started a quilting tradition. It is hard to imagine now, but in the 1700s quilt making was a necessity if you want to keep your family warm, comfortable, and even alive in the cold months!
And because materials and money were more often than not rare and scarce at that time, some of the quilts made were created from feed sacks and just about any fabric available like worn blankets and clothes. Today, there are quilt makers who use old, worn-out jeans as quilt patterns not necessarily out of necessity, but more because they want to recycle fabrics and help preserve the environment.
The Victorian Crazy Quilt Craze
Have you heard of the Victorian Crazy Quilt? Well, these quilt patterns became popular in the late 1800s, probably because of the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in the US, where exquisite English embroidery and Japanese art were exhibited. The satin stitches in the English embroidery, and the Japanese silkscreen and cracked glazed pottery inspired the affluent European-American quilt makers to create unique patterns and to use stitching that looks like fans and spider webs in their quilts. This came to be known as the Victorian Crazy Quilt and it became the national fashion among upper-class women who have access to various fabrics and expensive threads and other embellishments.
The Victorian Crazy quilt craze also spread out into the rural areas where quilters used more practical fabrics and did away with the ornate embroidery and other embellishments. This new craze also allowed them to use the last scraps of fabric from their other projects. Nowadays, a crazy quilt is normally consisting of a combination of many contrasting colors in one quilt. For a more in-depth look at some of these modern quilts, please have a look at our article Contemporary Quilt Makers Who Paint With Fabric.
Commemorative Quilts for Family Events
European-American women also started making quilts to record special events or family celebrations. By this time, quilts had slowly transitioned as design pieces as they were made from commemorative clothes and tee-shirts of deceased loved ones, from baby clothes or wedding dresses. The Missouri Star Commemorative Quilt, for example, was made from a deceased husband's clothes and is comprised of a repeat pattern named the Missouri Star. In between the patterns are lattice strips that were made from the late husband's pants and denim shirts while the border around it was made completely from his clothing.
The Popularity of Applique in Quilt Making
The use of appliques in the European-American quilting tradition started with the use of expensive laces and other ornamental fabrics from Europe and other exotic places. Often, the patterns are stenciled into the already quilted fabric and then the pieces are then re-stitched onto plain cotton fabrics later. These quilts are highly ornamental and are often used as decorative wall hangings and they became quite popular that some of them can still be found in museums and exhibits highlighting quilting traditions of European-Americans in the US.
Quilt Making as A Social Tool
Since quilt making can sometimes take months to finish, quilting circles, also called quilting bees, were soon organized where women came together to share their quilting experiences. Some of them traveled for miles to reach friends who were sewing large quilts and needed an extra hand. The Friendship Cross Within a Cross Quilt, for example, was made by an Amish woman with the help of others. What they did was create a sampler quilt where each quilter in a group would recreate the same square many times. Sometimes, members of a quilting circle or bee would swap quilt squares and each of them can then create their own quilt using the gifts of the other women in their groups. The quilting tradition where women come together to share patterns and help each other is still practiced today all over the world.
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