Quilt making is both a practical activity and an ancient art form. Quilts are used for beautiful bed coverings, garments and decorative pieces by meticulously cutting and stitching pieces of fabric together to make cozy textiles with one-of-a-kind quilting designs. While quilts are perhaps most commonly used in bedrooms, that's not their only purpose.
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Quilting vs. quilts: what's the difference?
If you're new to the world of quilts, it's useful to understand a few key terms. Quilting is a sewing method that's used to sew several layers of fabric together. A quilt is a blanket that's made using quilting techniques. Manufacturers also make quilted fabric that's used to make coats, blankets, purses and other items.
Traditional quilts are made using three layers of fabric. The top layer of a quilt can be a single piece of fabric, but quilters typically create patterned or designed top layers. Often, quilters start by sewing individual blocks from a variety of fabrics. The blocks are laid out into a square or rectangle design and are sewn together. A single piece of solid-color fabric is often used for the bottom layer of a quilt; that's because the top layer is the only part that's seen once the quilt is displayed.
A layer of batting is sandwiched between the quilt top and the bottom layer. Then, the quilter creates stitching that covers the entire surface of the fabric and holds all three layers together. Quilters may create straight lines, intricate designs or really any quilting pattern they want with their stitching. While our ancestors had to do all that work with hand quilting, modern quilts can be quilted using sewing machines or a kind of machine called a longarm quilter. Finally, a strip of fabric is sewn all the way around the edge of the quilt to act as the binding.
Did You Know?
The word "quilt" is derived from the Latin "culcida," meaning stuffed sack or cushion, and it has been used in England since the 13th century.
What are quilts used for?
Quilts are primarily used as bed coverings, either in place of a bedspread/duvet cover/coverlet or on top of one.
Quilted shams may also be used to cover pillows. Because they're made of multiple layers, including a batting filler that's commonly made of wool or cotton, quilts can be warmer than other types of bedding. It's easy to understand how quilts came to be used as bed toppers in the days long before central heating. Even if your family was poor, you could save all your old fabric scraps to sew into quilts to keep your bedroom warm in a drafty home.
As well as being used on beds, quilts are often used as decorative items. Some people drape them over sofas to be used as throw blankets. Long, narrow quilts are also used as table runners. Quilts are also displayed as wall hangings in some homes, especially if they have sentimental value. If you have a patchwork quilt that's been passed down from generation to generation or one that is made out of scraps of your kids' baby clothes, you might prefer to see it on your wall rather than sleep under it at night.
Quilting as a communal activity
It's important to note that the practice of quilt making has had great cultural significance throughout history and continues to be significant today. Quilts are sometimes used to spread social or political messages or to act as memorials, such as the famous American AIDS memorial quilt that was first created in 1987. Some researchers have even shared a theory that slaves used quilts to spread messages as part of the underground railroad, though that theory has been heavily disputed.
Quilt making can also be an important community ritual. Quilting bees became popular as early as the mid-1800s and were often organized before weddings. A bride's female relatives and friends would come together to sew a wedding quilt for the couple. According to folklore, they would be blessed if they slept under the quilt on their wedding night.
- American Sewing Guild: Quilting Terms: Quilting, Borders and Sashing
- Victoria and Albert Museum: An Introduction to Quilting and Patchwork
- Smithsonian Magazine: The Surprisingly Radical History of Quilting
- AccuQuilt: A History of the Double Wedding Ring Quilt
- Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage: Underground Railroad Quilt Codes: What We Know, What We Believe, and What Inspires Us