American quilting probably began with the piecing together of worn or torn blankets and the patching of linens. Home spun and woven fabrics were the staples of clothing, bedding, and even door and window coverings.
But cloth does not preserve well, and little evidence for pre-colonial quilts exist. Colonial and Revolutionary-era quilts are rarities. From what I have been able to determine, see references listed below, quilts from the Eighteenth Century were not common but did exist. Nineteenth Century quilts were fairly common with the majority of estates listing a quilt as part of the estate inventory.
Trends and patterns in quilt styles are discernible through time and place. Whole cloth quilts made from one large, usually light-colored fabric piece, with the decorative stitching tracing a design as overstitching that goes through the the three-layer sandwich of bottom, batting, and top, and holds all layers together. The stitching usually can be seen as an intricate repetitive design. Pieced quilts became common in the mid-1800s but few still exist due to their destruction during the sacking of the Southern states as well as requests for their donation to the Red Cross and military hospitals during the Civil War.
Beyond the Civil War, before and during it, the Underground Railway and the history of quilts overlapped in a way that perfectly illustrates the complex yet subtly nuanced information channels within women’s cultural systems. The patterns of pieced quilts became more standardized in the early mid-1800s and this allowed replication of standard quilt designs.
There is published report of quilts being used as signal devises used to help escaped slaves know when and where to travel during an escape journey. Unfortunately this traces to one woman’s recollections of such quilt designs. We simply do not know enough about the escape routes and methods used by the free Northern-residing blacks and the small in number whites who helped those escaped slaves move north to freedom.
One site says unequivocally that the quilt code in nothing but myth.
But there is little evidence one way or another. As mentioned earlier, quilts of this era rarely survived the war, one way or another.
After the Civil War, cotton gradually became available in the North, and the South slowly recovered. The sewing machine became available. Quilts became common.
Women made quilts for daughters, women raised funds with quilts, grandmothers made quilts for grand daughters. In our culture, expression of sentiment was often viewed as weakness especially as the frontier was developed and through recessions and depressions. Women expressed themselves through the loving care they put into design choice, fabric coordination, and overstitched/quilted design-work.
Artistic expression, expression of love, and material frugality are wrapped up in the expressive history of women. Most of us cannot write about the legacies given to us, those we create for ourselves, or the ones we build for the future without mentioning quilts.
Pam Varner, of My Sassy Notions, personal communication.
Letter Q Legacy of Quilts Tools for Legacy projects