While some 18th-cent. examples are extant, the American quilt as art and craft is largely a 19th-century phenomenon. Dozens of traditional patchwork patterns have evolved, such as Sunburst, Sawtooth, Log Cabin, Schoolhouse, and Bear's Paw, and have continued in use well into the 20th cent. The quilts of certain American groups are especially compelling works of art. Among the most notable of these were made by the Amish (particularly c.1870-1935) who created utilitarian quilts with geometric designs in areas of unpatterned color—deep, vibrant, and close-toned—now much sought after by collectors. The Victorian period marked the popularity of the crazy quilt, in which asymmetrical designs were made of patches of various textiles in a multiplicity of sizes and shapes often connected by decorative stitching.
Part of the American folk art tradition, quilting is still practiced by Southern mountainfolk, the Pennsylvania Dutch, and other rural dwellers and has been revived as ornamental needlework. Traditional African-American quilts have been particularly praised for their bold, asymmetrical designs and brilliant colors, often complemented by the use of tied knots. Of particular interest are quilts (1930s-present) created by the women of Gee's Bend, an historically black Alabama community—jazzy, colorful works in irregular geometric patterns of remarkable abstract power that have been widely exhibited, e.g., at the Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC (2002). The quilt has also been used as a form of textile art, as in the work of Faith Ringgold, who blends African-American tradition with contemporary art. Quilting also has a utilitarian function in modern life with machine-quilted materials used for wearing apparel and in interior decoration, particularly for bed and couch covers.
See P. Cooper and N. B. Buferd, The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art (1978); M. Walker, The Complete Guide to Quiltmaking (1986); C. L. Mosey, Contemporary Quilts from Traditional Patterns (1988); C. Benberry, Always There: The African-American Presence in American Quilts (1992).
Quilting is a sewing method done either by hand, by sewing machine, or by a longarm quilting system. The process uses a needle and thread to join two or more layers of material together to make a quilt. Typical quilting is done with three layers: the top fabric or quilt top, batting or insulating material and backing material. The quilter's hand or sewing machine passes the needle and thread through all layers and then brings the needle back up. The process is repeated across the entire piece where quilting is wanted. A straight or running stitch is commonly used and these stitches can be purely functional or decorative and elaborate. Quilting is done on bed spreads, art quilt wall hangings, clothing, and a variety of textile products. Quilting can make a project thick, or with dense quilting, can raise one area so that another stands out.
In American Colonial times most women were busy spinning, weaving and making clothing. Meanwhile women of the wealthier classes prided themselves on their fine quilting of wholecloth quilts with fine needlework. Quilts made during the early 1800s were not constructed of pieced blocks but instead whole cloth quilts. Broderie perse quilts and medallion quilts were made. Some antique quilts made in North America have worn-out blankets or older quilts as the internal batting layer, quilted between new layers of fabric and thereby extending the usefulness of old material.
During American Pioneer days "paper" quilting became popular. Paper was used as a pattern and each individual piece of cut fabric was basted around the paper pattern. Paper was a scarce commodity in the early American west and women would save letters from home, newspaper clippings, and catalogs to use as patterns. The paper not only served as a pattern but as an insulator. The paper found between the old quilts has become a primary source about pioneer life. Quilts made without any insulation or batting were referred to as summer quilts. They were not made for warmth, only to keep the chill off on cooler summer evenings. Harriet Powers, a slave-born African American woman, made two famous story quilts. She was just one of the many African American quilters who contributed to the evolution of quilting.
In modern times, art quilts have started to become popular for their aesthetic and artistic qualities rather than for functionality (i.e., they are displayed on a wall rather than spread on a bed).
Hand Quilting is the process of using a needle and thread to sew a running type stitch by hand across the entire area to be quilted. This binds the layers together. A quilting frame or hoop is often used to assist in holding the piece being quilted, off the quilter's lap. A quilter can make one running stitch at a time; this is called a stab stitch. Another option is called a rocking stitch, where the quilter has one hand, usually with a finger wearing a thimble, on top of the quilt, while the other hand is located beneath the piece to push the needle back up. The third option is called "loading the needle" and involves doing four or more stitches before pulling the needle through the cloth. Hand quilting is still practiced by the Amish within the United States, and is enjoying a resurgence worldwide.
Machine Quilting is the process of using a home sewing machine or a Longarm machine to sew the layers together. With the home sewing machine the layers are tacked together before quilting. This involves laying the top, batting and backing out on a flat surface and either pinning (using large safety pins) or tacking the layers together. Longarm Quilting involves placing the layers to be quilted on a special frame. The frame has bars on which the layers are rolled, keeping these together without the need for basting or pinning. These frames are used with a professional sewing machine mounted on a platform. The platform rides along tracks so that the machine can be moved across the layers on the frame. A Longarm machine is moved across the fabric. In contrast, the fabric is moved through a home sewing machine.
Tying is another technique of fastening the three layers together (and is not a form of quilting at all). This is done primarily on quilts that are made to be used and are needed quickly. The process of tying the quilt is done with yarns or multiple strands of thread. Square knots are used to finish off the ties so that the quilt may be washed and used without fear of the knots coming undone.
Note 1: Quilting can be elaborately decorative, comprising stitching fashioned into complex designs and patterns. The quilter may choose to emphasize and add to the richness of the quilting, by using threads that are multicolored and/or metallic, or that contrast highly to the fabric. Conversely, the quilter may choose to make the quilting disappear, using "invisible" nylon or polyester thread, and stitching in the ditch (in the seam line). Some quilters draw the quilting design on the quilt top before stitching, while others stitch "freehand."
Note 2: While the majority of quilt tops are pieced from many smaller patches of fabric (patchwork quilts), in which the patterns of individual blocks, or the pattern created by combining the blocks is the emphasis, whole cloth quilts typically use a single, non-figural piece of fabric and the elaborate quilting is the emphasis. Polished chintz, sateen or other shiny fabrics are often used in whole cloth quilts to aid in emphasizing the intricately detailed quilting stitches.