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Quilting & Knitting

“The more things change…the more they stay the same…” “A stitch in time saves nine…”
“What goes around, comes around…”

Every old-fashioned saying that you can think of certainly applies to the time-honored crafts of quilting and knitting today. The renewed interest in these crafts, perhaps fueled by the desire to get back to basics, is seen in large cities and small towns alike. Shop owners and craft show organizers are saying, “Welcome” to beginners and “Welcome back” to veterans!

Although both crafts undoubtedly date back before written history, the earliest known examples include a quilted garment carved on an ivory figure of an Egyptian Pharaoh. Similarly, fragments of knitting have been found dating back to the time of Egyptian pyramids, evidenced by a knitted doll lain to rest in the tomb of a young child. More recent history suggests that both quilting and knitting were widespread in Europe by the time the colonists came to the New World. Therefore, the American history of the crafts is as unique and varied as the groups of settlers who brought them here. So let’s begin with a glimpse back…


The availability of quilt patterns in books and magazines (as well as on the Internet) is taken for granted today, but it wasn’t until the 1850’s when textiles were produced in factories that quilting became widespread. In the late 1800’s, familiar patterns that American women loved began to appear in print. Publishers of farm magazines discovered that printing quilt patterns attracted women readers. Other types of magazines, and even newspapers, soon began to publish quilt patterns.

One quilting fad that began after the 1876 Centennial Celebration in Philadelphia had all the Victorian-era quilters going “crazy.” With the help of popular women’s magazines, the making of Crazy Quilts became quite the rage. To the Victorians, the word “crazy” not only meant wild, but also “broken” or “crazed into splinters.” This look is evident in the various triangles and other odd shapes in the quilts. Crazy Quilts were more show pieces than functional, using velvets, silks and brocades cut and pieced in random shapes. These quilts were often called “lap robes” that were used to decorate the parlor—fitting showpieces for the lavish interior decoration of the day.

Quilting during the time of the Civil War is a mixture of fact and myth. Some stories suggest that a Log Cabin quilt hanging in a window with a black center for the chimney hole indicated a safe house. Underground Railroad quilts, a variation on Jacob’s Ladder, were said to give cues to a safe path to freedom. Although there is no evidence that this really occurred, the stories have been told through-out the generations. We do know, however, that women in the North made quilts with verses indicating the evils of slavery. Some quilts even included pictures of slaves in shackles.

Other quilting trends made their way into American homes over the years. Among them, the popular Charm Quilts, also from the Victorian era, made up of a variety of fabrics. The Charm Quilt can be known by other names that may describe certain attributes of the quilt. “Odd Fellar” could mean that there are no two pieces of fabric exactly alike in a Charm Quilt. “Beggar” refers to the practice of asking for pieces of fabric in order to collect enough of a variety to finish the quilt.

An item called Cheater Cloth became available around the 1850’s. This fabric had quilt block patterns printed on it, as opposed to sewing together different pieces of cloth. The first cheater cloth patterns were imitated chintz patches. In the early 1900’s, other patterns such as Log Cabin and Charm Quilts became available of cheater cloth. In the 1930’s, Sears offered cheater cloth in patterns that included Double Wedding Ring and Grandmother’s Flower Garden. Cheater cloth is still being produced today and can be found in just about every quilt store!

Quilting and the Amish

One group of people having a profound effect on the art of quilting is the Amish. The word “Amish” usually brings to mind a host of handmade goods—especially quilts—but actually, the Amish came late into quilting. Very few quilts are known to have been made by the Amish before the 1870’s. Then, over a 15-year period, quilting became quite common.

Amish settlers came to the United States from Germany and Switzerland in the early 1700’s. A sect of the Mennonite Church, the Amish believe in a simple lifestyle that strictly adheres to the Bible. Amish communities were formed so that members could remain apart from the temptations of the modern world, so not surprisingly, Amish quilts were among the most conservative. Early Amish quilts were made in one solid color of brown, blue, rust or black. Worsted wools and cottons were used, as the popular silks were considered worldly. Although the fabrics were plain, the quilting was intricate and decorative and often included swirling feathers, curves and grids.

Since living as part of a community is central to Amish life, quilting easily fits into that lifestyle. As quilting became another traditional task, one of many done in groups, the sense of community and the importance of complying with certain standards are very evident in Amish quilting.
With the Bicentennial festivities approaching in 1976, America once again prepared to celebrate its past. The unique art of Amish quilting was discovered during these celebrations, and Amish women began to product quilts to be sold.

Mountain Discoveries - A Free Western Maryland Regional Publication
Mountain Discoveries - A Free Western Maryland Regional Publication  
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