Quilts – Counterpane’s of Comfort and Cultural Significance (2023)

Quilts – Counterpane’s of Comfort and Cultural Significance (1)The bed is, more than often, the place where life begins. Painted exquisitely on a small porcelain plaque is recorded the birth in France c1764 of the grandchild of Monsieur de Courteille, Director of Sevres, the renowned porcelain manufactory.

It is a delightful scene and the bed itself is beautifully hung with heavy striped silk. Two huge soft white pillows accompany a traditional French bolster and the young woman is being kept warm and snug by the superb lace trimmed counterpane or quilted bedspread; the word counterpane deriving from the quilting stitch contre pointe.

From linen mummy wrappings to the elaborate woven, embroidered and embellished fabrics of the Renaissance period in Italy onward, textiles have been a powerful transmitter of wealth and status, as well as a measure of the development of human society.

Quilts – Counterpane’s of Comfort and Cultural Significance (2)‘Every stitch tells a story’ and a triumph for the decorative arts historical quilts today are a tribute to those who worked the historical threads of our society.

That rare, fragile and wonderful ‘Australian textile’ known as The Rajah Quilt is traditionally a sewn blanket made up pieced together from scraps of fabric in a patchwork pattern that is then joined either by needle and thread or ties to make a useful basis for a new beginning.

The main design rich and colourful top layer covers a middle insulating layer, these days made of a combination of fibres that form a central padding, with finally a backing layer made of a woven material that is strong and serviceable.

This trio of textiles is then finally brought together using various different applique techniques, which when completed give the finished object great strength as it provides lightly the warmth and ‘cosiness’ aspect for which quilts have become renowned.

Quilts – Counterpane’s of Comfort and Cultural Significance (3)

The Rajah quilt 1841 British makers on board the Rajah en-route to Hobart pieced medallion style unlined coverlet: cotton sheeting and chintz appliqué, silk thread embroidery Collection of the National Gallery of Australia. Gift of Les Hollings and the Australian Textiles Fund 1989

The Rajah Quilt is very special and a major focus of the National Gallery of Australia’s collection of textiles. Because of its fragility, it is now put on show usually for one small period each year in Canberra.

In 1841 working this amazing textile provided a vital link back to their homeland for the women being transported on board the ship Rajah as she set sail for Van Diemen’s Land, where their new life of incarceration would begin.

On board they became a community of women working together as one and for a common purpose. They stitched and sewed what is now known as The Rajah Quilt according to traditions they had inherited. As such it has for our nation become a piece of art of great historical significance and an important part of the fabric that reflects our social and cultural development.

The women involved were totally dedicated to its completion and a cross-stitch inscription sewn on one of its patches acknowledges ‘The British Ladies Society’, who kindly provided them with materials and the motivation to make the quilt while they were endeavouring to survive the hardships and lack of privileges during their journey at sea.

Quilts – Counterpane’s of Comfort and Cultural Significance (4)Completing the quilt would have bought them comfort, bonded them together and provided a forum wherein they could enjoy being part of circle of conversation that buoyed up their spirits and kept them going and sewing.

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In this context it can be considered a lifeline of society.

Australia’s leading quilting historian Dr. Annette Gero, FRSA book for which she has become renowned, is “The Fabric of Society’, which not only reflects the heritage quilts found in Australia but also the social history of countless people from our past.

Quilts – Counterpane’s of Comfort and Cultural Significance (5)

The Tristan Quilt is Linen quilted and padded with cotton wadding with outlines in brown and white linen thread and dates from 1360 – 1400 made Sicily, Italy courtesy V & A London

The skills that have evolved from the refinement of needlework over the centuries today attracts millions of people around the world to either view historic textiles in museums and galleries, or to take up the challenge of producing their own.

The historical aspects of decorative needlework is both diverse and rich and there is still a lot we can discover from various fragments found in China, South America as well as in Egypt, where it is estimated they were enjoying the craft some 5,000 years ago.

Modern textile historians deduce a great deal about a society, its traditions and folklore from such fragments.

Some scholars also believe that the love of colour produced in enamels, metals and glass was also an inspiration for various types of embroidered textiles in Ancient Egypt, which then flowed through the societies of ancient Greece and Rome mostly from this tradition.

Fragments in museums all around the world reveal that good strong cloth has always provided for humankind from its early beginnings and in both life and death.

The Tristan Quilt is the oldest of its type in the collection of the V & A Museum at London, made c1360 and 1400 in Sicily. It’s a linen coverlet covered in 14 scenes of the legend of Tristan and Isolde a favourite fable in the Middle Ages with lively scenes of battles, ships and castles.

Castles were much under siege by crusaders at this time and they wore a type of quilted garment under their armour, the Gambeson, which later developed as a ‘doublet’.

Quilts – Counterpane’s of Comfort and Cultural Significance (6)

Quilted and embroidered linen 1703 – Mythical figures such as the mermaids shown here were popular subjects. Another motif hints at the presence of quilted fashion garments at this time. The woman at the top edge of the border is weating a quilted petticoat: a popular item for informal dress courtesy V & A Museum, London

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They were sleeveless, made from linen or wool, the stuffing either being scrap cloth or horse hair. They had laces to fasten them until buttons arrived in quantity during the 14th century.

Life is like that, one stitch at a time taken patiently. In the end if you take your needle and work at your pattern it will come out all right and endure, they are after all the threads of destiny.

Throughout the medieval period European courts and high ranking church officials impressed each other and their subjects by wearing costumes, bearing banners and making hangings for the wall all made from fabulous fabrics that re-in-forced an image of high status and great power.

As the known borders of their world expanded Europeans were able to draw on many different cultural sources for inspiration to embellish their garments with fine embroidery for personal, state and ceremonial use.

They used the same basic techniques of stitches which are a feature of the earliest work from five centuries before Christ and include what we know as chain stitch, blanket stitch, running stitch, satin stitch and cross stitch.

Because textiles were so expensive during the medieval and Renaissance periods and an ability to ‘dry’ clean them was very limited, after a while dresses with rotted hems and underarms destroyed by perspiration meant they had to be discarded.

In England Queen Elizabeth 1 (1533-1603) was renowned for ensuring that the very best bits of her outrageously expensive garments were cut from dresses being discarded and re-used, often for cushions for her women who would sit on the floor in her presence, as well as for other useful purposes including quilting.

Another fabulous quilt in the V & A Museum at London bears the Royal Coat of Arms in the centre and figures symbolizing the four continents and they are disposed in each corner.

Quilts – Counterpane’s of Comfort and Cultural Significance (8)

Embroidered wool intarsia in silks, wool and silk appliqué 1856-1859 Great Britain, UK, courtesy V & A London

The subjects of the other panels include scenes from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, images of the four evangelists, Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert, celebrated French and British military and naval heroes, well-known performers and actors, and episodes and characters from popular plays.

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The subject of each panel is identified with an embroidered title.

It is skillfully made of appliquéd wool and silk with some intarsia work. The figures are carefully depicted, their facial and bodily features, drapery, details of their clothes and accessories embroidered in polychrome silks in chain, satin, back and other flat stitches.

In the story of Elijah, the nap of the wool fabric has been raised to suggest the shaggy coats of the bears. It brings home the point that while the identity of the maker or makers is not known similar quilts of known authorship made by men, several of whom were tailors.

This is not unusual in the world of textiles, men were just as gainfully employed as were women to perform the task, and in some cultures they predominated in the textile field especially weaving these valuable threads of our society.

Quilts – Counterpane’s of Comfort and Cultural Significance (9)

Wool appliqué and patchwork with embroidery Coverlet, Wiltshire England, Ann West Designer and Maker 1820 – A ‘Garden of Eden’ theme courtesy V & A, London

The tradition of saving ‘scraps’ of fabric in bags from Queen Elizabeth 1 to Queen Victoria allowed them to be used in the manufacture of quilted garments, bedding for adults and babies and useful objects such as jackets, caps and tea cosies.

Don’t know about you, but my mother always kept a ‘scrap bag’ a family tradition passed down from her great grandmother.

She was transported to Australia aged 14 with her young brother. The charge was stealing a blanket to keep them warm on the streets after they had lost their mother and were left with no family to care for them.

A poor, bare, miserable room it was, with broken windows, no fire, ragged bedclothes, a sick mother, wailing baby, and a group of pale, hungry children cuddled under one old quilt, trying to keep warm.

American author Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) penned this powerful image in her novel ‘Little Women’ first published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. It was all about the values of hearth and home and about helping those who had a greater need than self.

Quilts – Counterpane’s of Comfort and Cultural Significance (10)

Rare example of a figurative coverlet c1805 England, Patchwork of printed and plain cottons, partly block printed, partly embroidered courtesy V & A, London. The central scene shows King George III reviewing the volunteer troops, and is based on a painting by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) ‘His Majesty reviewing the volunteer corps’ (1799).

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Many of the working poor at the time were societal ‘victims’ of the progress being made in manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century.

It’s the scene Jo March, together with her sister’s Meg, Beth and Amy and their mother Mrs March looked upon as they arrived to help a very poor local family on Christmas morning, bringing their breakfast to share with them.

Today Australia just like America has a sensational and very active quilting tradition.

As an art form it really reached a pinnacle of achievement in both design and hand manufacture during the arts and crafts period in the English Victorian age. In our own age many quilters are challenging traditional patterns by producing exciting and innovative contemporary design and competition is indeed fierce.

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Woman’s informal bodice c1700 – 1729, Linen, cord quilted and embroidered with silk thread courtesy V & A London

In Australia our states abound with local Quilter’s group and state associations. There is also a national group, the Australian Quilters Association and like most of these organizations, they seems to have got under way in Australia in the aftermath of World War II.

This doesn’t mean that quilts have not been made here since the first fleet they have. However they were mainly sewn for a long time in the bosom of large extended families, where they were practically used until they needed to be discarded.

Some families have held onto fragments because of the emotional bonds they represented.

As the size of Aussie families have reduced since the 1960’s so has the need arisen for Australian women to join into an activity they can share with other women outside the home, as did those women who sailed on the Rajah once did so long ago.

Quilting in community is all about companionship and the comfort provided when making a quilt either alone, within the circle of a quilting bee or, alternatively in a joint project with others.

From the coverlet of a bed, today Quilts are also displayed on walls as an object that has family value, one handed down through the generations.

Sleeping soundly under the stars with just a quilt for cover and comfort in the backyard is something that many Aussie kids have shared in common and it’s good to see quilts coming back into contention, favour and fashion.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013 -2016

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What is the historical significance of a quilt? ›

The word 'quilt' – linked to the Latin word 'culcita', meaning a bolster or cushion – seems to have first been used in England in the 13th century. The earliest quilting was used to make bed covers: very fine quilts are often mentioned in medieval inventories and frequently became family heirlooms.

Are quilts cultural? ›

Quilts reflect the quilters' cultural values, beliefs, and lifestyles (1 Culture) and document the past and present (2 Time, Continuity, and Change). Quilters from different cultures portrayed the world around them through quilts.

What was the purpose of quilting during the ancient Egyptian? ›

A carved ivory figure of an Egyptian pharaoh dated from 3400 B.C. displays the earliest known quilted clothing. Medieval knights wore quilted garments under their armor for comfort, warmth, and further protection.

Is quilting cultural appropriation? ›

When a white quilter takes a symbol of cultural and historical relevance to a non-white population and uses it out of context for her own gain, that is cultural appropriation. It can also be considered anything from theft to distortion of something sacred to just plain disrespect.

What role did quilts play in African American history? ›

African American quilts are significant artistic pieces of both the past and present history for black Americans. They tell stories of slavery and segregation, giving viewers valuable history lessons while also representing beacons of hope. They are symbols of culture, community, and freedom.

What are traditional quilts? ›

A Traditional Quilt is one that uses regularly repeating shapes based on a grid. The blocks used can be simple or complex, or familiar historical blocks where the rows and columns are the same block. Traditional quilts rely on symmetry with uniform sashing and borders.

How are art and history connected through quilts? ›

Quilts can be works of art as well as stories through pictures. They also tell a story about their creators and about the historical and cultural context of their creation (quilting bees, historical and personal events) through the choices made in design, material, and content.

What are the 3 types of quilts? ›

The three basic styles of rallis are: 1) patchwork quilts made from pieces of cloth torn into squares and triangles and then stitched together, 2) appliqué quilts made from intricate cut-out patterns in a variety of shapes, and 3) embroidered quilts where the embroidery stitches form patterns on solid colored fabric.

Why quilted blankets are useful during winter? ›

Quilts are used in winters to make us feel warm because they are made of fluffy cotton which contains air and this air does not allow heat to escape from our body to the surroundings, so we do not feel cold.

What are some uses of quilts historically and today? ›

Throughout history, women and sometimes men have used the art of quilting for many diverse purposes: to keep warm, to decorate their homes, to express their political views, to remember a loved one.

What are quilts used for? ›

Quilts can be used for anything from bed covering to wall decorations. Often old quilts are used to make doll clothing or reupholster furniture. The versatility of quilts also lends itself to being turned into purses, table runners, and framed artwork.

How does quilting help an individual like? ›

The repetitive motions involved in quilting help us get into a flow that is both relaxing and allows us to forget about our problems and worries. However, because quilting needs our problem-solving skills, it also constantly provides us with new challenges and makes our lives more interesting and fulfilling.

Is wearing Japanese patterns cultural appropriation? ›

Another reason why choosing to wear a kimono shirt is not considered to be cultural appropriation is that the Japanese style street wear is not an object with inherent religious significance.

Where do we draw the line between cultural appropriation and appreciation? ›

Nowadays, the boundary between appreciation and appropriation is often blurred in pop culture and social media, especially common among celebrities. Many celebrities have worn debatable hairstyles, costumes, cosmetic products, or expressed language that has been viewed as cultural appropriation.

What is the purpose of barn quilts? ›

Barn quilts tell stories about individual farms, historical events or communities while also adding visual interest to the countryside and increasing rural tourism. They can come in a range of sizes.

Did quilts have only practical purposes for the slaves who made them? ›

While they can serve the function of keeping bodies warm in cold weather, they also serve the function of telling African American narratives in keeping with African artistic traditions. During slavery, women patch-worked quilts out of scraps of fabric to keep themselves and their families warm.

Where did story quilts originate? ›

Our story quilt was created in 1992 by the 3rd Grade class at Cooper Elementary in Newton, Ks.

What is the full meaning of quilt? ›

noun. 1. 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. 2. anything quilted or resembling a quilt.

How many different types of quilts are there? ›

There are four basic types of quilting, though there are all sorts of patterns that use more than one of these techniques. Our four basic types of quilts are: Pieced, Appliquéd, Paper Pieced, and English Paper Pieced.

What are the 5 kinds of quilting? ›

The Most Popular Styles of Quilting
  • Pieced or Patchwork Quilts. Pieced, or patchwork, quilting is the most basic and common type of quilting. ...
  • Applique Quilts. ...
  • Paper Pieced Quilts. ...
  • English Paper Piecing. ...
  • Memory & Photo Memory Quilts. ...
  • Cathedral Window Quilts. ...
  • Civil War Quilts. ...
  • Hawaiian Quilts.
Nov 14, 2016

Why are quilts considered art? ›

Practitioners of quilt art create it based on their experiences, imagery, and ideas, rather than traditional patterns. Quilt art generally has more in common with the fine arts than it does with traditional quilting.

How were political symbols used in the quilts? ›

A common way for quiltmakers to express their patriotism and, sometimes, their partisan views has been through imagery and motifs pieced, quilted, or appliqued onto bedcovers. Eagles, laurel wreaths, flags, shields, stars, red-white-and-blue color schemes, and patriotic sayings are frequent themes.

Are quilts art? ›

Patchwork and Quilting are arts that can be traced back to 3400 BC, and they have remained a staple across many cultures, countries and traditions.

What makes quilting unique? ›

The characteristics of a modern quilt may include: the use of bold colors and prints, high contrast and graphic areas of solid color, improvisational piecing, minimalism, expansive negative space, and alternate grid work.

What is the most popular quilt pattern? ›

The Log Cabin block is one of the most well-known and popular of all patchwork patterns.

What are names for quilts? ›

On Naming Quilts
  • Pinky-Swoon.
  • Scrap Leather.
  • Ziggity-Zag.
  • Once when I was stuck for a name, I couldn't resist following the lead on some artwork I'd seen, and named this one Untitled in Green.
  • StringSong.
  • Yay or Nay.
Aug 24, 2016

Why do quilts keep us warm? ›

Blankets form a barrier between your body and that cold air. Heat doesn't transfer through the blankets very well, they keep the heat from getting out.

Why are quilts warm? ›

Because they're relatively thin and lightweight, quilts are a good option for hot sleepers. Those in warm climates. Lighter-weight covers may help keep you more comfortable (and cut down on your A/C bill) when the weather's warm and you want to stay cool.

What is the difference between a quilt and a blanket? ›

The main difference between blanket and quilt is that a blanket is single layer covering that is woven while a quilt is three layers covering that is quilted.

When did quilts become popular? ›

Mid-19th century

By the 1840s the textile industry had grown to the point that commercial fabrics were affordable to almost every family. As a result, quilt making became widespread.

What makes a quilt a quilt? ›

While there are always exceptions to every rule, in general a quilt is made up of a quilt top, something in the middle to add warmth and texture, and a backing. Add quilting to combine the three layers and binding to enclose it all together and that's everything needed to make a quilt.

What quilt cover means? ›

Basically, a quilt cover is a piece that goes over your duvet or quilt. It's the protection, the style, and often the top piece of your bed set. Think of it as a giant pillowcase for your duvet. A quilt cover most often comes as part of a set, with matching pillowcases.

Why is quilting said to help one become healthy? ›

The researchers said that “quilting seemed to possess some distinct properties for enhancing wellbeing that would not be replicable through physical/outdoor activities”. They say that “modern life may be seen as suppressing creativity and yet creativity may be something that humans intrinsically desire”.

Is it OK to wear a kimono if you're not Japanese? ›

To get straight to the point: As long as a kimono is worn out of respect and appreciation of the Japanese culture, it's perfectly fine to wear a kimono as a foreigner.

What are some examples of cultural appropriation? ›

dressing up as someone from another culture as a costume. wearing blackface. wearing clothing or jewelry with religious or spiritual significance when you don't practice that religion. any behavior that stereotypes or puts down members of another culture.

Is it disrespectful to wear a kimono if you're not Japanese? ›

In short, you will not be viewed as 'stealing' Japanese culture if you wear a kimono and you are respectful when doing so. In fact, many Japanese would be pleased to see you wear a kimono as it demonstrates your passion for Japanese culture.

Why is cultural appropriation important? ›

Cultural appropriation fuels social inequality, injustice, and racism. It is important to note that cultural appropriation also fuels social inequality, injustice, and racism.

How do you show cultural appreciation? ›

Start with these basic tips:
  1. Examine your own culture and beliefs. Knowing your own culture is one of the best ways to understand and appreciate other cultures. ...
  2. Recognize and embrace cultural differences. ...
  3. Refrain from using sacred artifacts or symbols from another culture as an accessory. ...
  4. Ask yourself why. ...
  5. Be an ally!
Nov 1, 2021

How do you show appreciation of other cultures? ›

  1. Make friends. Get to know your friends' families and see how their customs and traditions differ from yours. ...
  2. Talk to people. When you meet people from a different culture, ask them about their lives. ...
  3. Read. ...
  4. Watch movies. ...
  5. Listen to radio shows and podcasts. ...
  6. Travel.

What are some uses of quilts historically and today? ›

Throughout history, women and sometimes men have used the art of quilting for many diverse purposes: to keep warm, to decorate their homes, to express their political views, to remember a loved one.

Where did quilting originate from? ›

Quilting originated in Sweden in the fifteenth century with heavily stitched and appliquéd quilts made for the very wealthy. These quilts, created from silk, wool, and felt, were intended to be both decorative and functional and were found in churches and in the homes of nobility.

What is an interesting fact about quilting? ›

Rudimentary quilting dates back to China around 3000 B.C. when warriors quilted chest protectors together. Ancient Egyptians also quilted clothing out of pieces of fabric. The world's oldest quilt still in existence is the Tristan Quilt, which sits in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

What are quilts used for? ›

Quilts can be used for anything from bed covering to wall decorations. Often old quilts are used to make doll clothing or reupholster furniture. The versatility of quilts also lends itself to being turned into purses, table runners, and framed artwork.

What is the significance of a barn quilt? ›

Barn quilts tell stories about individual farms, historical events or communities while also adding visual interest to the countryside and increasing rural tourism. They can come in a range of sizes.

When did quilts become popular? ›

Mid-19th century

By the 1840s the textile industry had grown to the point that commercial fabrics were affordable to almost every family. As a result, quilt making became widespread.

How does quilting help an individual like? ›

The repetitive motions involved in quilting help us get into a flow that is both relaxing and allows us to forget about our problems and worries. However, because quilting needs our problem-solving skills, it also constantly provides us with new challenges and makes our lives more interesting and fulfilling.

Why is quilting so popular? ›

Consumers say they quilt in order to relax, relieve stress, be creative, and connect with family and friends through gift-giving.

Why did slaves make quilts? ›

"It meant gather your tools and get physically and mentally prepared to escape the plantation," Dobard said. The seamstress would then hang a quilt with a wagon wheel pattern. This pattern told slaves to pack their belongings because they were about to go on a long journey.


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