Quilting in the Big Woods


” On Sundays Mary and Laura must not run or shout or be noisy in their play. Mary could not sew on her nine-patch quilt, and Laura could not knit on the tiny mittens she was making for Baby Carrie.” pg. 84

I loved the idea of making a quilt by hand. I think there was something nostalgic about sitting down with needle & thread creating a blanket to be wrapped in during a raining day. There was classmate in elementary school that spent her recess silently sewing in the corner and agreed to teach me.  I think I lasted about three days before the call of kickball sang like the competitive siren she is.  It was 20 years later that I attempted to  quilt again. The blanket was simple squares patched together using a handheld sewing machine. The kind of sewer sold late night on TV. The patches were all Hogwarts fabric as my youngest brother was making his through the Harry Potter series  for the first time and the idea of him reading the book late at night in bed wrapped in a Hogwarts blanket made my heart sing. My siblings are all pretty competitive regarding getting the BEST Christmas present for one another. I was going to “win” this year!  He still has the blanket to this day and it’s my favorite still. I’ve made a few baby blankets, simple lap blankets and wedding gifts since then but the first always sticks out in your mind. The joy of completing that project was a fabric high that has led to an addiction to purchasing cute/awesome/hip/soul inspiring fabrics to this day. So many projects await on the horizon…

While I will drink sugar free Red Bull till my eyes bulge and try to complete a project within a few days, the Ingles would quietly work in their quilts at night when all the chores were done. To have something like a blanket be utilitarian first and decorative second is a different mind sight to the craft. That blanket isn’t tying the room décor together it’s providing warmth during the Wisconsin winter. The books constantly refer to Ma’s scrap bag. Every piece of fabric was recycled. A dress could be reimagined into a blanket or apron. Nothing was left to waste.  The more I dig into the household history of the series the more I start looking around my house and realize how thin pantries would be if I had to complete by hand.

Instead of my simple ramblings regarding past quilts and work ethic i’ll leave you with an essay on the basic history of the quilt. Julie Johnson wrote a fantastic article outlining the history of quilting through the Emporia State University’s Great Plain’s Studies page.

“Random House Dictionary defines a quilt as “a coverlet for a bed, made of two layers of fabric with some soft substance, as wool or down, between them and stitched in patterns or tufted through all thicknesses in order to prevent the filling from shifting.”

The word quilt comes from the Latin culcita meaning a stuffed sack, but it came into the English language from the French word cuilte.

The origins of quilting remain unknown, but historians do know that quilting, piecing, and applique were used for clothing and furnishings in diverse parts of the world in early times. The earliest known quilted garment is on the carved ivory figure of a Pharaoh of the Egyptian First Dynasty about 3400 B.C. In 1924 archaeologists discovered a quilted floor covering in Mongolia. They estimated that it dates from somewhere between the first century B.C. to the second century A.D. There are also numerous references to quilts in literature and also inventories of estates.

Crusaders brought quilting to Europe from the Middle East in the late 11th century. Quilted garments were popular in the Middle Ages. Knights wore them under their armor for comfort. They also used quilted garments to protect the metal armor from the elements (rain, snow, sun).

The earliest known surviving bed quilt is one from Sicily from the end of the fourteenth century. It is made of linen and padded with wool. The blocks across the center are scenes from the legend of Tristan. The quilt is 122″ by 106″ and is in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

When settlers arrived in the new world, they of course brought with them much of the cultural heritage from Europe. Although it is not known if they brought quilts with them, it is assumed that they brought the art of quilting with them. The first reference to quilts in America is at the end of the seventeenth century in the listing of a household inventory of a Salem, Massachusetts sea captain. None of the early colonial quilts survive. This makes sense when you consider that for the most part in the early colonial days, quilts were made from fabric that was salvaged from its previous use. The earliest surviving American pieced quilt is the Saltonstall quilt from 1704. Historians were able to date the Saltonstall quilt in an unusual way. At one time a common technique for quilting was to cut the quilt pieces out of paper and piece them together before starting in on the fabric. This was done in the Saltonstall quilt and the paper pieced quilt was used as an inner lining for the quilt. As the outer fabric wore out, the date on a newspaper came into view, thus giving historians an accurate idea of when the quilt was done.

In the nineteenth century quilt-making flourished especially in the period between 1825 and 1875. As the original colonists had brought quilting from the old world, the settlers who began moving west in the nineteenth century brought quilting with them. Eventually quilting came to the Great Plains. Quilting was a craft that adapted well to the Great Plains and quilts became an important asset to settlers on the plains. Not only could they be used on beds, they were also useful as covers for doors and windows and as floor mats for the children to play on. In many cases they were also used as currency to pay bills. Although some women continued to use remnants from clothes to piece their quilts, most learned to take advantage of the wide variety of colorful calicos to create works of art.

The wide open spaces and relative isolation of the Great Plains also made the idea of the “quilting bee” attractive. At a quilting bee women from the area would bring quilt tops that were already pieced and work together to quilt the top. The quilting bee afforded plains women a chance to socialize. Often a quilting bee would be a full day affair with lunch served to the women who came to help and dinner for all the families. Sometimes there would be a dance in the evening. One of the happier functions of the quilting bee was to help provide young women with quilts for their hope chests.

Because quilts provide protection from the elements, quilt-making is an art or skill that has never ceased to exist. As a work of art, they are easy to move around and many people can find satisfaction in the use of different colors and different fabrics. The usefulness of quilts has also contributed to their continued existence. Their advantages include increased warmth, greater strength, and the recycling of existing materials.

We are currently in a period of renewed interest in quilts and quilt-making. In many cases quilts have become objects on display in museums. The Spencer Art Museum on the campus of the University of Kansas has an impressive collection of quilts and in the summer of 1997 the University of Nebraska at Lincoln received a donation of 950 quilts from Ardis and Robert James. The quilts date from 1750 to 1990. The spring 1990 issue of Kansas History includes four articles on quilts and quilt-making.”


  • Cooper, Patricia and Bufer, Norma Bradley. THE QUILTERS: WOMEN AND DOMESTIC ART–AN ORAL HISTORY, Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1978.
  • Hall, Carrie A. and Kretsinger, Rose. THE ROMANCE OF THE PATCHWORK QUILT. Caldwell, Idaho: Bonanza Books, 1935.
  • Khin, Yvonne,
  • THE COLLECTORS DICTIONARY OF QUILT NAMES & PATTERNS. Washington, D.C., Acropolis Books Ltd, 1988.
  • Orlofsky, Patsy and Myron. QUILTS IN AMERICA. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.
  • Rogers, Josephine. THE 7-DAY QUILT. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1979.
  • Sommer, Elyse. A PATCHWORK, APPLIQUE, AND QUILTING PRIMER. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Company, 1975.
  • Wilson, Erica. QUILTS OF AMERICA. New York: Oxmoor House, Inc., 1979.

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