They pop up at craft shows and making them has seen a resurgence in popularity. What are they? Quilts! Quilts are the beautiful bed coverings we envy our grandmothers for. At their most basic, they are pieces of fabric sewn together into a whole, and sewn on to some kind of backing material with cotton batting in between.
However, quilts are as much art form as functional, and they have existed for hundreds of years. They began in the lower classes, as thrifty peasant women used scraps of leftover material or pieces of worn out shirts or dresses to make blankets for their families. Gradually, quilts evolved into beautiful handcrafts, and since they are so large and labor-intensive, making them became a social event - the quilting bee. Neighbors or family members would gather at each other's homes, sit around a large wooden quilting frame, and assemble the quilt. In this way, they accomplished necessary work and were able to socialize, as well.
Quilts may be functional or purely decorative. Smaller quilts are often used as wall hangings, in the decorative sense, while a larger quilt may be neatly folded over an antique quilt rack to give a country "Americana" look to the room. Functional quilts are used in the same way as bedspreads. They make the bed look neat, and also provide warmth. They come in every size, from tiny ones for a baby's crib, all the way to large quilts that cover a California king-sized bed.
Whether functional or decorative, what makes quilts famous for their beauty is their patterns. Some of these patterns pre-date the American Revolutionary War. One popular pattern is the double wedding ring, the familiar series of interlocking circles. The log cabin pattern is a series of blocks, with rectangular strips of fabric sewn at right angles to each other to form squares. Small octagonal pieces sewn together in groups form the flower garden pattern, and a five-pointed, stylized leaf forms the maple leaf pattern. Diamond-shaped pieces sewn together can create the shooting star or lone star patterns. Some people prefer the arts and crafts look of the "crazy quilt," which is made of pieces of any scrap fabric sewn together in no particular pattern.
One specialized form of quilt emerged during the nineteenth century in America: the slave quilt. These quilts were functional as bed coverings, but also served another purpose: they gave directions that helped slaves escape north on the Underground Railroad. The quilts were sewn with various colors and symbols that represented the local roads, fields, plantations and streams. These quilts were on every plantation, hung on a clothesline or tree branch to give their messages. The orientation of the quilt as it hung changed the messages. These quilts also gave information about hiding places, food caches and safe houses to any who could read their language. They began appearing about 1835, when people from the north came to the plantations and taught the slaves how to make the quilts. The few slave quilts still in existence are in museums or are cherished family heirlooms.
Quilting classes are available in many community education programs, and books abound on the subject, teaching quilters techniques, as well as new patterns. Whether functional or decorative, quilts are beautiful pieces of art and windows into history and culture.