Everything old is new again

Quilting has been around a while…

IMG_0095According to an authoritative source, the practice of quilting began in England in the 13th Century AD, mainly for warm or protective clothing. Written records suggest that bed quilts were first in use in the 13th century, but few examples survive.

Quilting as we know it today was first practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries, bringing with it the start of the huge collection of traditional blocks we know, love and make regular use of today, whether we favour modern or traditional quilt design.

The patterns of these traditional blocks are timeless – even more so than we perhaps realise.

IMG_0756 IMG_0750My sister was showing me photographs of Byzantine mosaic pavements she took on a visit to Myra in Turkey, and a Roman one from Spoleto in Italy. It amused me no end to realise I was looking at square in square (economy) blocks, hexies, snowballs, orange peels, HST, mariner’s compass, sashing and mitred corners. Just as with antique quilts, the colours have faded and some of the patterns are a little threadbare. But it’s still possible to see the jewel-bright, crisp patterns the mosaicist created, and visualise the magnificence of the finished work. I think those Byzantine and Roman artists still have a lot to teach us, and I’ll be looking at those ancient blocks with a newly respectful eye.

Quilting isn’t new. But the sources it draws upon go far back in the mists of time, and today’s quilters are joined to their sisters and brothers in history by threads of tradition, and the beauty and clarity of the mosaicist’s art.



25 thoughts on “Everything old is new again

  1. Even older than that: Roman soldiers patrolling Hadrian’s Wall were kept warm in the Northern winter by quilted cloaks made from scraps by their mothers. Patchworkers have taken their designs from all sorts of sources. I’ve kept this photograph of Durham Cathedral in the hope of trying to copy it. https://vivinfrance.files.wordpress.com/2012/03/durham-cathedral-floor.jpg?w=653&quality=80&strip=info

    • katechiconi says:

      Yes, quilted clothing goes back much further than bed quilts. That cathedral floor is wonderful; I hope you do get to recreate it some time, but the curves are going to be the tricky part, aren’t they?

      • I did an experiment with curved flying geese (paper piecing) and it was so fiddly I never took it any further.

      • katechiconi says:

        You know, I think it would make an interesting quilt to take just a section of that floor, a sort of snapshot, and scale it up to make the piecing manageable. I used to hate and fear paper piecing, and now I love it. I truly would love to see a little bit of the Durham floor in fabric…

  2. dayphoto says:

    Very, very interesting!


  3. Neat info. I saw a museum exhibit of textile antiquities years ago. There weren’t quilts but displayed were what surely were the precursor of quilts including fanciful patches and layering of fabrics.

    • katechiconi says:

      That sounds fascinating. I like to imagine the ‘aha!’ moment when someone somewhere realised that you could cut and fit together shapes of fabric just like pieces of tile or glass, and achieve similarly beautiful results.

  4. On the North American continent, very little patchwork was done until the 1800s. Most quilting was on whole cloth or appliqued work, rather than patchwork. England’s factory textile industry led the US by 20 years or so, but the majority of fabric made in England at the time (about 1790ish until 1820ish) was wool rather than cotton. When the US cotton textile industry grew up in the late 18-teens and into the 1820s, fabric finally became available enough to lose that much ground to seams. Before that it was simply too expensive for anyone but the most wealthy families. There are a few surviving examples of patchwork from the late 1700s, such as at least one coverlet (unquilted) made by Martha Washington. But most of the block patterns developed later than that. Indeed, though, the mosaics from thousands of years surely inspired many of the designs, as they still do. Thanks for the link and the photos. Always fascinating stuff!

    • katechiconi says:

      I went to a quilt exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum in London about 5 years ago. There were some fragments of extremely ancient domestic textiles, as well as Victorian and later examples. The V&A has always been my go-to resource if I want to find some amazing textile, so I was overjoyed to find the exhibition coincided with one of my visits to the UK.

  5. norma says:

    Mosaics make such good inspiration – thanks for showing these. Church floors make me think of quilts too and I’ve saved a lot of photos of them over the years. Maybe one day I’ll make a quilt from them.
    V & A exhibition was marvelous wasn’t it?

  6. tialys says:

    Next time my husband asks me why I am cutting up perfectly good fabric only to sew it back up again I will direct him to your informative post.

  7. Carine says:

    What a great idea to use the Spoleto floor as inspiration for quilt-design! The term you are looking for here is ‘cosmatesque’ – feed it to Google and it will hit you with tons of fabulous ancient marble floors, some over 2000 years old. (yes, this is your usually silent lurker niece, but say ‘Spoleto’ and out I come!)

    • katechiconi says:

      Good day, Professor Doctor niece! I am taking very good care of your mother – if you’d like a Skype, she’ll be here until Tuesday morning local time. John has been enjoying Googling ‘cosmatesque’ and elbowing me each time he sees a particularly complicated one. I have no ambition to take on anything too geometrically challenging, but I do love the continuity of the designs down through the ages. It keeps us in our place in the order of things to see that what we think is modern and clever has been in use for a couple of thousand years!

  8. Lynda says:

    Truly beautiful and inspiring!

    • katechiconi says:

      My niece is a lecturer in medieval studies at the University of Utrecht, and has a doctorate in archaeology. The top photo is one of hers, and one of these days, a small wall hanging will be heading her way, based on a section of the Spoleto floor…

  9. rutigt says:

    Even today, in modern times, you can find inspiration just looking out from the window 🙂

  10. […] recall my post of a couple of days ago, talking about how today we are using the same patterns in patchwork as the Romans and Byzantines […]

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