Having a long history in Great Britain, quilted items such as bed coverings, curtains, and clothing came to America with the colonists. Quilting skills and a variety of patchwork patterns that flourished and changed with time were brought to the southern United States through the migration of settlers.
The typical quilt, constructed with three bound layers, including a top of appliquéd or pieced patchwork, a cotton or wool batting, and a lining, offered good insulation against the cold, damp winters of the South. Quilt types have varied with the socioeconomic status and aesthetic standards of the makers and the intended use of the quilt. With cotton for batting plentiful in the South, even on small subsistence farms, but fabric scarce and expensive, simple "everyday" quilts were common. However, more decorative "fancy" quilts with elaborate color-coordinated patterns and intricate quilting were also made, frequently by members of the wealthier classes, who often had slave help until the Civil War, and also in fewer numbers by members of the lower classes.
Although quilters have bought at least some of their fabric, quilt making has been mainly a salvage craft, employing in its early years homespun, worn clothing, muslin flour and sugar sacks, cotton print feed sacks, as well as sewing remnants collected from the home, family friends, and neighbors, and more recently, from garage sales and clothing and fabric factories. Today synthetic fabrics, polyester batting, and machine piecing are often accepted by traditional quilters, although some quilters, more affected by the popular quilt revival, buy only cottons or cotton blends in coordinated colors and insist on hand sewing.
Traditional quilters, who learn their craft informally from family or neighbors rather than from books and formal classes as the revivalists do, pass along community standards and preferences. Traditional southern Anglo-American quilts, often with bright or pastel printed fabrics and intricate patchwork patterns, contrast sharply with the bold dark solids and simple large scale patterns of the Amish quilts and the bright solid colors of the Pennsylvania German quilts. Although the southern quilters do strive for their ideal of precise piecing of complex patterns such at the "Double Wedding Ring," or "Flower Garden" and tiny close quilting stitches, they do not often employ the elaborate hearts, plumes, and floral quilting motifs so common in the Pennsylvania German quilts. Today, southern Anglo-American quilts are typically quilted in wooden frames suspended from the ceiling or placed on chairs or "horses." Quilting is generally done "by the piece," with stitching about one-fourth inch from the edge of each patchwork seam. Early quilts may have more quilting often done in "shells," or concentric half circles.
As in the past, quilts are still made as heirlooms or gifts to mark occasions such as weddings and baby showers. Traditional quilters usually work alone; however, in urban areas senior citizens centers and women's groups are reviving the once-popular quilting bee. These groups, as well as many individual quilters, also quilt "for the public" to earn extra income and to keep busy. The survival of the quilting tradition may be attributed not only to the prevalent Protestant work ethic, which abhors waste of materials and time, but also to the social and symbolic functions of quilting in maintaining community, family, and personal creativity.
From ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOUTHERN CULTURE, edited by William Ferris and Charles Reagan Wilson. Copyright 1989 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.