Posted by: Bob Fisher | October 10, 2010

What’s In a Quilt?

Social history, that’s what.

The quilt has been described as the “social fabric” of a nation, especially in the United States where the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976 and the “hippie years” of the 60s and 70s saw a resurgence of this particular craft.

Don’t be fooled. Quilting is serious stuff. The proof positive is Sew What, the Mid-Atlantic Quilt Festival held again in Hampton, Virginia. The festival is a showcase for what many aficionados consider not just a craft, but an art; “fiber arts” is the term frequently applied. There will also be a juried quilt competition, wearable art competition, workshops, lectures, and 18 special exhibitions and demonstrations.

So why is quilting, like many other handcraft work, seen such a revival? Part of the answer is its extensive history. It isn’t just a relevantly recent handcraft; what is known as quilting, piecing, and appliqué originated in China and Egypt almost simultaneously.

And get this! The earliest quilted garment was discovered on a carved ivory figure of a Pharoah dating from 3400 BCE.

Furthermore, I bet you didn’t know that Crusaders returned to Britain with a version of the craft they found in the Middle East, and began wearing quilted garments under their armour. Quilting is also connected to technology because when the quilting frame was invented, quilters could make finer stitches that in a number of cultures led to quilting becoming an art form. In Japan, women produced elaborate and very beautiful robes for warlords and other dignitaries from Chinese silk brocade. Even the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York has displayed quilts and referred to them as an art form as opposed to a craft.

Whether quilting is a craft or an art form may be somewhat irrelevant. What is important is the renewed interested among the travelling public in handcrafts in general. This goes along with the surge in interest by travellers (the 50+ crowd especially) in heritage buildings and any aspect of social history that demonstrates fundamental “pioneering” skills… i.e. disappearing or lost skills?

Some sociologists have speculated that this looking back at what definitely was not always “the good old days” is in part the proverbial (some might say running scared) search for authenticity, all those fundamental social values that kept communities alive.

In North American culture, quilting of course has usually been “women’s work” and probably not valued as it should be; another manifestation of our not insignificant tendency to gender bias. But this collective nurturing social behaviour that can be seen in tangible form in quilts is something that any cultural anthropologist worth her or his salt would recognize right away as an important area of study.

And as “sophisticated” travellers rediscover the “old skills” (quilting, carpentry, stone masonry, organic gardening and cooking … the list goes on), they may well be discovering that if the world does indeed go to Hell in a handbag, only those with the essential survival skills will make it through the night.

For more information on Sew What? visit or send an email to

From personal experience, I can also tell you that Hampton, Virginia is one of the best (and most meaningful) travel destinations in the U.S. Hampton is the site of North America’s first continuous English-speaking settlement. They know what authenticity is all about.

For more information on Hampton, read:

Hampton, Virginia: The Quiet Epicenter of American History

The image of the quilt in this blog is “Fireflies,” by Yoshiko Miyamoto, Japan



  1. Immersive a great article,
    thanks for sharing

  2. February Sat-Sun 26-27 Quilting in the Red Rocks Quilt Show
    FREE Admission! Over 120 beautiful quilts displayed. Shop in our Merchants Mall; have your quilts appraised. Hourly door prizes, raffle items, demonstrations. Saturday and Sunday classes. Contact us for class registration forms: or call 435-259-6447

    It is small in comparison to Mancuso events. Still a person can bring their quilt and have age evaluated for $35 at the Red Rocks Quit Show. The Mormon Pioneers don’t go as far back antique-wise as the east coast of America, still Moab’s event is all very interesting. If you have time to swing in or would like to provide an honorable mention of rural communities keeping quilting alive in the tradition of all that is wholesome and creative from the past.

    If anyone is interested to create an event, have a retreat or conference in Moab. The travel council can help, there is advertising money available as well. find out more:

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