Introduction to quilting
Quilting can be traced back at least to the Middle Ages. Examples from Europe, India and the Far East can be seen in the Museum, but quilting has also been practised in Persia, Turkestan and Moslem Africa. The word `quilt' seems to have first been used in England in the 1200s, and connects with the Latin word ‘cucita’ meaning a bolster or cushion.
Quilting usually means two layers of fabric sandwiching a thickish padding or interlining, all held together by lines of stitching. However, it is not essential to have the middle layer; for instance in early 18th-century English quilting, just the two outer layers of fabric were used, and in 'Italian' or corded quilting, strands of cord or thick wool are threaded between parallel lines of stitching to make the raised pattern.
In any quilting, the stitching is very important. It can be just basic running stitch or back stitch, but each stitch has to be made individually to make sure it catches all the layers. In quilts where the stitching is laid down in decorative patterns, it can be extremely fine work. Traditional titles for many popular stitching patterns include such names as Broken Plaid, Hanging Diamond, Twisted Rope or True Lovers' Knot. Because of the large areas to be dealt with, for example on bed covers, it is very easy for quilt making to become a social occasion where lots of people share the sewing. Particularly in America, where early settlers from England and Holland established quilting as a very popular craft, there is still the tradition of a quilt-making 'bee' for a girl about to get married, with the aim of stitching a whole quilt in one day.
Uses of quilted fabric
The earliest quilting was used to make bed covers: very fine quilts are often mentioned in inventories from medieval times and frequently became family heirlooms. In the Middle Ages quilting was also used to produce clothing that was light as well as warm. It was also used for protective wear such as the padded jackets worn under armour to make it more comfortable or even, if very thick, as the top layer for people too poor to afford metal armour. Quilting was at its most popular in this country in the 17th century: in the early years for the quilted silk doublets and breeches worn by wealthy courtiers, and later on for petticoats, jackets and waistcoats.
In many instances the English quilted items in the Museum's collection are the work of women sewing domestically for their own use, but the Mughal hunting coat was probably the work of a specialist craft workshop employing male embroiderers. If you look closely you will see that the quilting has been done with chained stitch, called ‘tambour’ worked from the top surface with a special needle akin to a crochet hook.
In England during the 17th century, the desire to create interesting sculptural effects on textiles led to amazing heights of artistry in the hands of skilled needleworkers wanting to decorate boxes such as jewel caskets or make framed three-dimensional scenes. Various embroidery stitches could easily create a textured surface on a fabric with just yarn, for instance laid or couched work, where threads are laid across the fabric and then stitched down, French knots, or Turkey work, where knots are hand tied exactly like a pile carpet. However, there was also an exciting range of trimmings such as lace, cords, tassels, beads, seed pearls, metal sequins (spangles) or even pins arranged so that the heads made a decorative pattern as in pinstuck pincushions, which could be utilised to further decorate or raise the surfaces.