Quilt Myth #1: Quilts Originated from Necessity

There are a number of pervasive myths in quilting, some of them so ingrained that even long-time quilters believe them. It’s time to take on a few of these to set the record straight!

The first myth is one I see perpetuated frequently. It’s the story that quilting came about as a way to use scraps and used clothing, by people who had nothing else to use.

Of course, innumerable quilts were created just this way, and still are. People using the bits and pieces available have long made bed clothes both utilitarian and beautiful, from scraps of new fabric and cuts from salvageable parts of used clothing. But this is not the origin of quilting.

There is evidence that quilting may have existed at least 5,400 years ago. Yes, you read that right! According to quilt historian Averil Colby, an ivory statuette of a First Dynasty Egyptian pharaoh shows he wore a quilted robe. The photo in the attached link doesn’t show it well, but a side view with different lighting shows heavy relief with a diamond pattern. The relief suggests indentations made by decorative stitching (quilting,) rather than a surface design.

From the next 5,000 years, there are extant a number of examples of quilts, created for a variety of uses across Asia and Europe. In the Middle Ages, quilted garments were used as body armor. The garments were called “gambeson,” and they looked quite like quilted jackets that people wear now.


Docent at Edinburgh Castle with audience volunteer. She is wearing the gambeson, quilted body armor. 2016.

Over the centuries, quilted objects also included rugs, wall- and window-hangings for both decoration and warmth, undergarments, and outer layers of clothing. These items were made from a variety of fibers, including wool, linen, silk, and cotton. The preferred fiber depended on the type of object as well as the region in which it was made.

In the New World in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the quilts with which we’re familiar were mostly bedding. But they were not common. They were objects in homes of the affluent. Fine fabric was scarce. It was mostly imported and subject to heavy taxes.

Cotton fabric, in particular, was rare and expensive. As a crop in America, cotton was not mature. The modern cotton gin, used for separating fibers from seeds, was not invented until 1793. The new process allowed the variety of cotton grown inland to be economically feasible, but until then, raw cotton production was quite low. The first American textile mills emulating English technology didn’t open until 1814, and production took decades to ramp up, along with the cotton fiber crop.

Then as today, quilts were many times more expensive than woven blankets. They were listed in estate documents (wills) and included in dowry chests. They were luxury items that took tremendous time to create. Only people of means had the leisure time or the servants or slaves to expend that amount of time.

Because fabric is fragile and perishable, the historical record has unavoidable gaps. Textiles that experienced the hardest use are least likely to persist. But that also argues against the notion that “used clothing” was a resource for making quilts. In the days when most people had two or three changes of clothing, when use was hard and washing methods harsh, there were no “good” scraps left when clothing was ready to be replaced. While even that cloth may have been layered with stitching, it would have created the crudest type of covering.

It may be that the myth persists because so many of us have family heirlooms, quilts made during the Depression or in the 1940s. Many of these quilts used feed sack fabric, or did include scraps from either new sewing projects or from older clothes. However, even in these relatively meager times, fabric was much more available than it was a hundred years before.

Quilting’s story is long. It is a mistake to assume that what we know from recent history can be generalized over the longer term. In this case the assumption is just wrong. Quilting did not originate from necessity. On the contrary, it was a household craft for those who could afford multiple layers of fabric for one object, and the time required to create it.

What quilting myths would you like explored here? There are a number I can think of, but I’d like to know what notions you’re interested in. 


16 thoughts on “Quilt Myth #1: Quilts Originated from Necessity

  1. KerryCan

    We do love these romantic stories, don’t we?! I see it as a “Little House on the Prairie-fication” of American history. And I’m glad you’ll be coming back to that Underground Ground myth–that one drives me crazy and it seems everyone in my guild buys into it!

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Oh lordie! THAT is too bad! When I was on library committee for my guild, I pulled the copy of the book that started it, and the Eleanor Burns pattern book that helped perpetuate it. (We get rid of books regularly, anyway, to make room for new ones. It wasn’t “censorship,” really. At least that’s what I tell myself.) And of course, someone donated it back a year or two later. !!! CANNOT KILL THE STORY! . Ugh…

  2. weddingdressblue

    The Underground Railroad quilts, which logically don’t make sense to me. For slaves to make quilts of special colors and patterns of fabric just as guideposts or trailmarkers??? Maybe I am too skeptical, but the story just doesn’t fit the reality of what I know of the process of making a quilt. Feels like a good story that of probably a myth.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      It is a myth! And you’re right, the story just doesn’t add up. I’ve written about it, and will include it again as another of the myth series. Thanks so much for bringing it up.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      mmm, I don’t know. Likely that has happened. I have often heard of cotton that was carded but still had seeds and other remnants in it. And I’ve also heard that the dark spots are not actually seeds. So I don’t know the truth!

  3. norma

    Interesting post. The history of patchwork and quilting is fascinating.
    I’ve made a realistic (I hope!) medieval pourpoint – in effect a stab vest. They were commonly worn in the 14th century. The vest is in the Weald & Downland Museum as a learning aid. Similarly, a woman’s quilted wool waistcoat and an 18th century quilted linen petticoat. All based on historical texts and pictures.
    It’s a problem that poorer people didn’t leave much behind and a lot of their textile history is uncertain. I guess you are right that most would have been endlessly overstitched – maybe like boro?

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      It occurs to me that one of the problems is that people in the US think everything started with us. Something 200 years old is practically ancient, so it’s hard to imagine that something might have come before it. … I’m not proud to say it, but I think it could be part of problem.

      So, YAY for you, helping to educate others about textile history. Thanks for your contribution. 🙂

  4. snarkyquilter

    Your post showed up in my mailbox along with a post from Quilting Daily about scrap quilts. To quote from that post: “Scrap quilts often bring to mind the image of a resourceful pioneer woman cutting up worn clothing to create bedcovers for her family. But the truth may be that scrap quilting didn’t become as commonplace as we think until the Great Depression, when hard-pressed quiltmakers were forced to use every bit of fabric they had on hand. Along with feed sacks, women also used bits of old clothing, worn-out bed linens, and anything else they could get their hands on. Often quilters made “britches quilts” from men’s old denim work clothes or wool clothing.” So, yeah, conestoga wagons weren’t filled with woman hand stitching quilts.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Imagine how hard that would be to do your stitching while riding on the roughest road in the worst car you’ve ever been in! I doubt much got done that way. And working after sundown by the light of a candle? pshaw! 🙂

      Well, thanks for sharing the Quilting Daily post. It’s always rewarding to see the real story put out, instead of the myth.

  5. katechiconi

    Even the gambesons or arming doublets varied according to the wealth of the owner, being velvet for the knightly class and wool-stuffed flax for the ordinary pikeman or foot soldier, who could scarcely afford much armour in any case… I studied a little about this as part of my design degree, in the History of Costume module.


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