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Patchwork Quilts in the West -Stitching Together Emotions and Sustainability

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

Patchwork quilts have been harbingers of history, culture, and traditions since times immemorial. The quilts, while embracing the wearer protect them from cold winds; but also wrap them in memories, providing the much-needed emotional warmth through reminiscences of love and blessings from the family. Needless to say, the small patches of fabric are mostly being recycled in the process, thus making a perfect example of sustainable living.

Patchwork Quilts- stitching together emotions and sustainability

Historical Perspective

Patchwork as an art can be counted as early as 5000 years old. However, there are literary references to the techniques of quilting from way back to the 13th century. The earliest surviving pieces of patchwork quilt come from the early 18th century though. It was in the 18th century that patchwork quilts found themselves at the crossroads of art, upcycling, family, safety, blessings, emotions & aesthetics in Europe! A parallel trend for patchwork quilts emerged in North America around the same time. Nevertheless, patchwork quilts are one of the most interesting examples of sustainable textile crafts, that embrace materials from everywhere; discarded clothing, sheets, clothes from charity shops, and much more; assimilating them into timeless pieces of exquisite craft.

The Process

The concept is simple though. Scraps of different fabrics are artistically sewn together and then finished with top stitches/embroidery to create a beautiful cover fabric. These scraps of fabric could be sourced from old beddings, sheets, clothes, or completely new fabrics known as ‘Fat Quarters’ (fancy name for a themed set of fabrics, each 18’’ X 22’’, equivalent to a quarter of a yard, i.e. 9’’X44’’).

Imagine a meters-long fabric created by sewing (hand or machine) together or patching scraps of fabric as small as a few centimeters; sometimes in abstract and sometimes in recognizable patterns.

Patchwork Quilt Artist: Daphne Cranfield ; Picture Credit: Sharon Honeyman
Quilt Artist: Daphne Cranfield ; Picture Credit: Sharon Honeyman; All rights reserved-Picture Not for Reprint

No wonder, the lead time in making a quilt could be anything between a few months to a year. This sewn collage of fabrics is then layered with wadding on a base fabric. The consortium of three layers is then quilted together with hand and/or machine stitches. A variety of hand and machine stitches, both functional and aesthetic, could be used to achieve the end product; the most common being running stitch, back stitch, blanket stitch, and hemming. The resulting product is a soft, padded, layered textile that is capable of protecting the wearer from cold winds. No wonder the tradition picked up in countries that see months of extreme cold.

Patterns and their Significance

The pattern in which scraps of fabric are joined together, adds not just aesthetic but cultural significance to these quilts. The patched patterns can be broadly divided into 3 categories: abstract, figurative & geometric.

Figurative patchwork quilts

have been powerful modes of non-verbal communication in various circumstances. There have been examples of social settings, family scenes recreated with patchwork and so the quilt not only provided physical warmth but also emotional reassurance of family and the emotional security that comes with it. In other instances, there could be memory quilts made entirely out of scraps from childhood clothing of the person.

Another set of interesting stories about patchwork quilts comes from 19th century North America when the underground railroads were fast becoming escape routes for black slaves to freedom. There is literature suggesting that some North American quilts had secret codes that would help the oppressed slaves find their way to freedom. As the slaves were never taught to read or write, the action and route codes were stitched on the quilts as patterns by local seamstresses and hung out of the window on various pretexts. This was generally done at a time when the freedom agent from the underground rail route was in the area. The slaves seeking freedom would memorize the patterns on the quilts, and take hints about when to start the journey as well as which direction to move towards, all from the patchwork quilts on display.

Geometric quilts

can be found in interesting patterns and may not carry a direct symbolism. However, the maker and wearer might still have an inside story to reminisce forever. A quick internet search will provide you with hundreds of stories like the one intricate quilt hand-stitched by a mother over months, while her son was recovering from serious injuries from a recent war. Each patch of fabric stitched on the quilt has been equated with mom’s prayers and wishes for the convalescing son!

Generally speaking, geometric quilts are most commonly done in square, triangular, hexagonal, or star-shaped arrangements. There are hundreds of articulate geometric quilt patterns known by specific names. Here patches of similar geometry are stitched together either randomly or in a predefined pattern to create a kaleidoscope effect. While it might sound simple, making these quilts takes loads of precision and reflects a deep understanding of the principles of geometry by the maker. Here are some exquisite examples of detailed geometric quilts done by Rachel Bushell. In Rachel's own words,"All my quilts are made for love, not money. I usually make a friend a quilt for a new baby (and a casserole ). My quilts are now in Japan, Australia, Korea, and Nepal. As well as the UK and Europe. I also make quilts when students at the school I work at have a dreadful event and are in long-term hospital care thankfully there have only been 2 of these. This year one of the quilts was made for a very lovely young boy of 10, whose adoptive mother decided she didn’t want him anymore! So I made him one to take with him to his foster placement. (The red white and blue Liberty fabric) but I made the school I work at give it to him so that the maker remained anonymous."

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Abstract quilt patterns

can be best exemplified with 19th century ‘Çrazy quilting’ rage and are recorded in textile history as an important textile art phenomenon in the Victorian era. The crazy quilts were made in silk, wool, and cotton and heavily embroidered with metallic threads in floral or abstract patterns. The concept of using unrelated materials meant that most materials on a crazy quilt came in conflict with each other at some point and not many quilts have survived to tell the story. Nevertheless, the rage for making these quilts became a fierce feminine competencies in the art of quilting. You can read more about ‘Crazy Quilts’ on the following links:

It's all about Family....

Coming to its family context, it is not unusual even today for children of a European household to have their very own personalized quilt lovingly made by mothers or grandmothers to mark special occasions in life. These quilts made and gifted by close members of the family represent safety, security, stability, love & affection; everything that echoes family!

As in the words of Tess Hicks, picture #1 is the one my mother made over 40 years ago during her first pregnancy. When her baby was born (me), it was given as a birth present. The quilt has been mended many times over the years, so probably contains only 60% of the original pieces. When it was first sewn, it included pieces from my mother’s wedding dress and pieces from some of my father’s shirts. #2 & #3 are patchwork quilts that my mother has sewn for her grandchildren. They were given to my children as ‘moving into a big bed presents.”

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Another generous contributor Sharon Honeyman shared with us pictures of extensive quilts done by her mother-in-law, Daphne Cranfield over the years. While a couple of these quilts were a gift to her and her husband, there were a few more done for the grandchildren. The quilts speak volumes about the design sensibilities and superior workmanship of the maker. In the pictures, you can see finer details like bordered slits to ensure fitment to the bedpost. An interesting feature of these quilts was that every single quilt had a hand-embroidered monogram with the maker's name and starting and ending date, thus documenting the time spent completing the lovely piece of textile craft. Interestingly, Sharon’s husband John can identify some of the fabrics patched in the quilt coming from his old ties. The family is aware that a few more came from old sheets and clothes from the household!

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Some more interesting contributions from Daphne Cranfield’s majestic creations come from her daughter Marie Kaye. Marie shared with us some lovely pictures of the quilts her mum hand-stitched for her. It would be interesting to note here that all these quilts in Sharon’s & Marie’s collection are completely hand-stitched as Daphne didn’t own a sewing machine. The family shared these pictures as a tribute to her skills, love and dedication as she passed away earlier this year.

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Patchwork Quilts and Community

Historically, quilts have emerged as a strong medium of storytelling & communication. It is difficult to ascertain when exactly the phenomenon of quilts as pieces of public communication started. In some places, these textile art pieces became a medium of keeping stories alive in an artistic way, other instances these quilts became a potent medium of bringing the community together where women would spend hours sharing sisterhood, while patching together a piece of community quilt and trying to communicate a story through it’s patterns. There are some exceptional quilts in european museums telling stories that find resonance with local communities.

Decline and Resurfacing in modern times:

The intricate and labor-intensive art of making patchwork quilts started slowing with the Industrial Revolution. The availability of cheaper, industrial substitutes and inclusion of more women in the active commercial workforce marked the decline of all intricate crafts, and the patchwork quilt trend was unfortunately one of them. Interestingly, the trend of patchwork quilts resurfaced during the COVID pandemic when people were forced to stay indoors for months. The time saw the resurfacing of many traditional, intricate crafts and patchwork quilts was one of them. As the pandemic eased and the world outside started opening up, there was a renewed sense of social initiatives within communities, and ‘community quilts’ / pandemic quilts/quarantine quilts emerged as an upcoming trend. People across communities and organisations came together to create pandemic-themed community quilts that would tell the story of their survival through one of the most difficult faces most of them had seen in their lifetime.

Below is a picture of one of these community quilts developed by the Adult & Community Education Department of London Borough of Hounslow. The broad border of the quilt tells a story divided into 21 boxes (2020-21 being most impacted by the pandemic).

Picture Credit: Hounslow Adult and Community Education, London Borough of Hounslow
Picture Credit: Hounslow Adult and Community Education, London Borough of Hounslow: All Rights Reserved-Pictures Not for Reprint

The story starts from the top left where the good old world, diving deep in the crowd and chaos starts gradually drowning into the loneliness of lockdown and the gradual journey back to social life thereafter. The center of the quilt pays homage to doctors, nurses, and other health workers of NHS for their selfless service to people during the pandemic. The plane in the centre flying the 'thankyou banner' signifies the borough of Hounslow as low-flying airplanes are quite a regular sight, the borough being home to Heathrow Airport.

Another example of quilts being used to tell organizational stories is the patchwork quilt developed again by Hounslow Adult & Community Education for London Transport Museum Depot.

Picture Credit: Hounslow Adult and Community Education, London Borough of Hounslow
Picture Credit: Hounslow Adult and Community Education, London Borough of Hounslow: All Rights Reserved-Pictures Not for Reprint

The quilt pays homage to the 2 century long history of London Transport Sytems currently known as TFL (Transport for London). The symbolic (tickets) patches and embroideries include the well-known London transport logo, maps, tickets, routes & some interesting vintage advertisements.

Patchwork Quilt Adaptations in Modern Times

While, patchwork quilts are the heroes of our story, while researching this bit we came across some beautiful textile artifacts which were made from different techniques but themed over patchwork quilts. Sharon shared with us pictures of knitted throws, again done by her talented mother-in-law. Don’t miss the pockets knitted in one of them to keep your feet warm. Another beautiful piece is the patchwork, quilted runner done by very talented Rachel Bushell. There is another patched rug done by Kerry Davis for her son Rocco. Kristy Smith shared with us a picture of the patchwork curtain she designed and developed taking inspiration from the patchwork blankets. Please find attached pictures of some of these.

All Rights Reserved-Pictures Not for Reprint

Patchwork quilts have come a long way from being articles of personal possession made by upcycling old fabrics - functional, aesthetic, symbolic, and emotional; to being storytellers for families and community! While on one hand, they present a perfect example pf sustainable living, they primarily serve the purpose of providing cover and protection from extremities of time and nature; preserving warmth with stories and messages hidden in their symbolic patterns.

They say -'there’s a bit of blood on every quilt'……well literally and metaphorically!

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Nov 15, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

One of the rare pieces summarising all important aspects of an exquisite craft, not to miss the lovely pictures!


Nov 14, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Comprehensive summary and amazing pictures of intricate quilts!

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