Quilting; the layering of several fabrics together and then stitching them together with patterns or blocks is an ancient art. Quilted vests and shoulder pads were worn by knights under their amour as a kind of "shock absorber." They protected the wearer from chaffing and also served as light weight body protection under chain mail. The Chinese have long used quilted garments to provide body warmth where heating is limited.
Prior to the Civil War, quilts were used as signals on the Underground Railroad to alert runaway slaves as to the safety of a stop or the need to seek refuge in another location. The various patterns were codes, one such is the pattern known as the Arkansas Traveler.
Quilting is a winter time activity, reserved for when outdoor activities are limited. Ours was a frugal nation whose citizens saved scraps and worn out garments to be remade into bed coverings.
Fabrics for clothing was rare and precious. The process of producing cloth was tedious, labor and time consuming, which during the period of settlement and development was mostly done by hand in the home by the women and children. A new suit of clothes or a dress came after much work was expended to produce the required fabric, hence the custom of saving any available leftovers for future use.
Quilting frames were often kept near the ceiling and lowered by pulleys when relatives and friends gather for a quilting session. Many hands made the work go faster, but it was also a time of fellowship and gossip as they took thousands of tiny stitches to piece and produce a new quilt.
Today when we wander through a museum or a quilt show we marvel at the fine handwork and wonder why the women didn't go half-blind with their precise stitching when working in dimly lit rooms.
We see the special quilts that were made for show or bedspreads, The everyday ones did not survive as the old fabrics wore away through long usage. During WWII I helped my mother take a threadbare Lone Star and cover it with a new bolt fabric. We then pulled heavy threads through the layers and tied them to make a new quilt with the old one serving as batting.
The pride and joy of my quilt collection is one I made myself. The Grandmother's Flower Garden is made from various wool craps when short skirts first made the fashion scene and we cut off about eight inches of our dowdy winter skirts.
I treasure the Fans that my Grandmother Black made for me, which has one of the fans upside down illustrating another quilting tradition. There is always a purposeful mistake in a proper quilt, because only God is perfect.
Many modern quilters carry on the ancient tradition. I remember one patron who came to the library to get a selection of audio books, which she listened to while she created her beautiful work.
To me quilts were made to be used on beds or maybe you took a very old one out on a picnic. I'm not sure I've adjusted to seeing them used as wall hangings or tablecloths. But our ancestors created a world of fine art which has become the icon of the frontier and rural America with their many and varied patterns of patchwork quilts.
Quilts are like good friends, they keep you warm and age with you.