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Art Through Textiles: Quilts and Quilters of Indiana County

This month brought with it a new year, and also a new exhibit “Art Through Textiles: Quilts and Quilters of Indiana County, 1850 to 1950.” The Historical and Genealogical Society has a vast collection of quilts from our earliest piece in 1850 to 1950. We have likely all seen quilts, whether they were in our grandmother’s attic, in the cedar chest, or on our bed. Learn more about the history of quilting, and come see the quilts on display through March 25, 2023.

Quilting is a method of sewing multiple layers of fabric together to make something that is both functional and warm. It has been a means of making clothing, wall hangings, and bed coverings for hundreds of years. However, quilting as we now know it, pieced quilts in different colors, did not become fashionable until the 19th century.


Throughout its history, quilting was typically accomplished by women who were tasked with clothing the family and maintaining the home. These women, having few opportunities outside of the home to showcase their artistic abilities, found in piecing quilts the means to express themselves in a decorative as well as functional way.


History of Quilting

The act of sewing multiple layers of fabric together to create something that was both protective and warm, had its beginnings in the 14th century and has evolved as a functional art throughout the following centuries.


Quilting was first brought to Europe after the Crusades when it was discovered that the Turks wore several layers of quilted fabric under their armor. In Northern Europe, this technique brought an extra layer of warmth as well as protection and was then utilized in other forms of clothing as well as bed covers and wall hangings.


The first known quilted bedcovers were not pieced, rather, they were made of whole cloth top and bottom with an image embedded in embroidery and quilted stitches. Initially, quilted bedcovers were expensive because of the cost of whole pieces of cloth coupled with the time it took to embroider and quilt that cloth made them cherished show pieces rather than utilitarian objects. “Everyday” quilts made by piecing materials together were so commonplace as to not even be mentioned in wills and inventories. Only when cotton cloth began to be manufactured on a greater scale in the colonies and the cost of fabric fell did pieced quilts replace the whole cloth embroidered works of art.


In North America, the first pieced quilts were known as Medallion Quilts. Popular in the early 1800s, these were made with a large motif in the center and surrounded by pieced or embroidered borders. Because printed fabrics were more readily available, medallion quilts became popular.


By the 1840s, artistic quilting in all forms: pieced, applique, and embroidery had become incredibly popular. With the availability of a wider variety of fabric prints and colors, women were able to prove their skill through this medium while making a functional piece to use in the home.


Anatomy of a Quilt

A certain number of things must be done to fabric in order for the finished product to be considered a quilt or quilted. Think of a quilt as a fabric sandwich. The first layer is called the top, this is the layer that has the piecing, embroidery, applique, or other decorative objects visible.


The second layer is the batting. Historically, this was made from wool or cotton, but it could have also been an old quilt, blanket, or homespun linsey-woolsey.


The final layer is the backing, this could be a whole piece of fabric all one color, or several pieces sewn together, however this piece was not meant to be decorative like the top.


The three layers alone do not make the product a quilt, what makes a quilt a quilt is the act of attaching all three layers together. This could be done by sewing either by hand, by machine, or by tying with string.

Artistry in Quilts, Indiana County

Flying geese, log cabin, drunkard’s path, Lonestar? While they are names for everyday items, they are also the names used to describe patterns in patchwork.


While the crazy quilt may look like a mishmash of random fabrics, it was in fact intentionally made to look this way. Growing in popularity in the late 19th century, the crazy quilt is a combination of fabrics pieced onto a block of specific size which is then sewn to other blocks until a top the desired size is created.


As the United States plunged into war, quilting became a necessity. During World War I, women made quilts for their home thus saving wool blankets for soldiers to use on the front. During World War II, quilts were often raffled off, or quilt blocks signed by the person who made it, whether it be a prominent community member or a local business to raise money for the war effort. Signature quilts became very popular at this time as well and are now fascinating community records.


During the Great Depression, women were once again forced to “make do.” At this time any fabric was pieced together and used, including feed sacks and flour bags, to create a quilt that would keep the family warm.


Conclusion

The history of Indiana County can be seen through the many quilts on display. From the thrifty women who made beautiful works of art from scraps of fabric, to the wealthy citizens who could afford silk and embroidery thread, the artist in such a utilitarian object proves Indiana County women have skills that rival that of any community across the United States. Admire the stitches, the color choices, the patterns, and the art in textile.


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