Saturday, June 30, 2012


By Ashley Kath-Bilsky
It’s quite possible, at this very moment, that some of you may have in your home a legacy that had been passed down to you from someone in your family. In many cases, it is a time capsule of a moment in the lives of an ancestor, or may even contain important family history using the only medium available at the time.

Perhaps you went to a museum or local arts and craft show and stared in wonder at a beautiful quilt on display, mesmerized by its color, simplistic or intricate design, and exceptional craftsmanship. As someone who loves history, especially history than crosses time to touch several generations, I can honestly say that I love and admire quilts (especially Amish quilts!). However, quilts are not just about someone’s family; they have become historical markers of our communities, different time periods, and the diverse cultures and religions that can be found in America. And so, it’s not surprising that today quilts are also considered a true art form.


Quilt making actually dates back thousands of years. The oldest piece of patchwork-type quilting is a patchwork canopy for a bed, and dates from 980 BC. This patchwork canopy is on display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The patchwork squares are made of leather that has been dyed in various colors. Silk quilts have also been found in Chinese tombs. A 9th century altar cloth, described as a patchwork of rectangular pieces of cloth, was found in the early 20th century by British-Hungarian archaeologist Sir Marc Aural Stein during the excavation of The Cave of the Thousand Buddhas in Dunhaung. It is believed the rectangular pieces of cloth were made by poor pilgrims to the cave, who took the pieces of material from the only thing they had, their clothing. This altar cloth can now be found in the British Museum.

In early Rome, bedding was known as a ‘culcita’, basically a sack of cloth or cushion that had been stuffed and tied in the center to hold the inner layer in place. As the Roman Empire grew, so did the culcita. In France, the word culcita became ‘cuilte’. England adopted the word as ‘cowlte’, which would eventually become the word quilt.

As crusaders, adventurers, and merchants began to travel the world, so did customs and traditions like quilting, as well as the availability of different textiles. Cotton from India, silk from China, and finely woven linen from Egypt would be traded first in the Far East and then throughout Europe.


Many of us have ancestors who made quilts, traditionally a type of bed cover using several pieces of cloth that have been pieced together by meticulous hand stitching. Most were crafted out of a necessity for warm bedding, especially during Colonial and Frontier America. The cost for imported fabric was very expensive and although homespun fabrics were available, they were not as durable. As such, saving leftover scraps of material was very important.

During the Colonial period, most quilts were made in the pattern known as wholecloth. Repeat lengths of the same leftover pieces of fabric were sewn together, creating the illusion of one piece of cloth. Pictured left is a c1780 block print wholecloth chintz quilt made for a four-poster bed.

After the American Revolution, pieced quilts became more commonplace. Leftover fabric was cut into uniform shapes that, when pieced together with other fabric of similar shape and size, formed a pattern such as blocks, stars, circles, or other shapes. Pictured below is a traditional design patchwork quilt using triangular shapes. Made in New England around 1825 it incorporates fabric from the late 1700s through 1820.

As time went on, the creativity and design of quilts became more elaborate, incorporating more difficult and artistic techniques such as hand applique.

Pictured below is a quilt from 1845 using a white rose applique design.

Formed out of three layers, the top cloth was the decorative layer; the middle layer was batting or wadding, and the third layer (or backing) was woven cloth. The word quilting refers to the joining of at least two of these layers using hand stitching or ties.

Quilting was often a family or communal event. My great-grandmother, along with my grandmother and her sisters, quilted together. As a little girl, my mother would not only watch but knew by sight what each person’s stitches looked like. I have distinct memories of my mother also pointing out a certain fabric in a family quilt and remembering her mother had used that material to make a dress for her, or saying “that was the fabric of our kitchen window curtain”.

Many church groups also had “quilting bees” where the womenfolk gathered together and, amidst laughter and lemonade, worked together to make a quilt for a new parishioner, a, bride-to-be, or perhaps just to help raise money for church repairs. Today, the Amish community is an excellent example of the legacy of quilting and coming together as a group to embrace their history and culture, using only hand-stitching, in what has become a much admired and respected art form.

But when exactly did quilts, as a whole, become recognized as ‘art’?


Although created as a necessary source of warmth and comfort, found in log cabins on the frontier, clapboard farmhouses on the plains, and both slave quarters and antebellum pillared homes of the south, they definitely incorporated color, creative design and use of textiles, and skill.

But it was not until the early 1970s that the Guggenheim Museum in New York took grandma’s quilts off their beds and put them on the wall as a work of art. Cosmopolitan New Yorkers were suddenly face-to-face with the examples of colorful textile artistry that would have hardly been noticed by them in their natural home’s setting. In addition to the design, skill and fibers used to make the quilt, the patterns were studied and it soon became clear that many of them tell a story. For example, you won’t find calico or fabric featuring patterns or stripes on an Amish quilt. As part of their culture and religion, strict observance must be made to the prescribed requirements of both color and fabric.

Perhaps the most moving antique quilt I have ever seen is one called “The Graveyard Quilt”. I first learned of this quilt in a DAR magazine article two years ago, and it has haunted me ever since.

In 1836, a woman named Elizabeth Roseberry Mitchell began stitching a quilt in memory of her two-year old son named John, who had just died. A few years later, in 1843, she added the name of another son who had died at the age of 19. But what was so unusual about her quilt is that it features a graveyard in the center. On the top is where the graveyard is located in Monroe County, Ohio. I must admit the grim, almost Tim Burton, look to it disturbed me. I wanted to know why this woman had chosen such a depressing way to remember her family.

Once again, necessity became the mother of invention. Apparently, when her family moved, Mrs. Mitchell wanted to make sure that no one forgot where her two sons had been buried. So, from a heartbreaking, mourning perspective, she used the materials she had and a talent she possessed to not only remember her deceased children but document her family’s history for future descendants. As such, her quilt became a genealogical and historical artifact.

As the family grew, Mrs. Mitchell felt the quilt had ‘design flaws’. She started another quilt, using the original quilt top as a practice piece. The practice quilt now resides in the Highlands Museum and Discovery Center in Ashland, Kentucky. The second, finished quilt (pictured) is part of the Kentucky Historical Society’s Thomas D. Clark History Center in Frankfort, Kentucky.

Having been involved in geneaology and family research for over twenty-five years, I know how difficult and frustrating it can be to find a missing piece of the puzzle, that key bit of genealogical information or firsthand historical documentation. So, now that I understand the story and her reasoning, I appreciate and admire the love and sentimentality Mrs. Mitchell crafted into her quilt. I must admit, however, that her method of keeping up the quilt bothers me. You see, when a child was born into the family (a joyous occasion usually filled with happiness and hope for their future), a black, eight-sided coffin was immediately added to this quilt around the outer edge. When death occurred, these coffins would be removed from that edge and reapplied into the graveyard area, located in the center. The death date would also be embroidered. After 175 years, quilters today may be impressed by Mrs. Mitchell’s “traditional layout of a center medallion surrounded by blocks of alternating 8-pointed stars and black printed fabric”, but for anyone who has spent hours and even years searching for one clue about their ancestors, “The Graveyard Quilt” (macabre as it may seem) is a tangible artifact and sacred history for the descendants of Elizabeth Roseberry Mitchell.

Today, you will find many art shows and museums across the country that exhibit quilts as a form of art. Texas even has a museum wholly dedicated to the art of quilt-making.

On November 13, 2011, The Texas Quilt Museum opened in La Grange, Texas. Situated on the Colorado River in Fayette County, the museum comprises two historical buildings from the 1890s and includes over 10,000 square feet and three galleries. With its high ceilings, wooden floors, and brick wall, the non-profit museum is the perfect location to display both antique and contemporary quilts.

At present, the museum is featuring its third installment of “Texas Quilts Today: Selections from the book, Lone Stars III – A Legacy of Texas Quilts from 1986-2011”. The book was written by museum co-founders and co-directors, Karey Patterson Brensenhan and Nancy O’Bryant Puentes, and features no less than 200 Texas quilts. The last phase of this three-part exhibit will run through September 30, 2012. Beginning in October 2012, the museum’s exhibit will be on “Antique Quilts”.

The Texas Quilt Museum also has a wonderful gift shop featuring quilt-related items including signed copies of “Lone Star III – A Legacy of Texas Quilts from 1986-2011”, instructional videos and CDs of music to quilt by, as well as “treasure boxes” by quilt artist Judy Murrah, and beautiful, hand-crafted pressed floral note cards by master gardener and artist Betty Ann Bilsky, (who, coincidentally, also happens to be my very talented mother-in-law). Many of her cards (see photos) feature various textures and textiles, including hand embroidery, and are suitable for framing.

Whether you have a much loved quilt that you use everyday, display as an heirloom, or just want to preserve, it is important to remember that quilts are an art form where fibers are used as the medium. As stated in The Quilt: A History of an American Art Form (2007), “Only a small number of quilts made before the nineteenth century survive today, making them all the more precious.” And because quilts are made of natural fibers, precautions need to be taken to preserve them – very much like any piece of artwork. If a quilt is on display, the quilt should be placed in a cool, dry environment and, most important, not put in direct sunlight. If the quilt is to be folded and displayed on a quilt rack, tissue paper between the layers of the quilt when folding is recommended. If you have an heirloom quilt and want to store it, remember that quilts need air, so do not store quilts in a plastic bag or sealed plastic container. Special containers made of muslin, canvas, etc., can be purchased online to safely store and preserve quilts.

I hope that you enjoyed my post about quilts and their legacy, and remember that each one tells a story. The next time you see a quilt show, whether at your county fair or a museum, admire the creativity and artistry that went into it, as well as the patience and time it took to make those meticulous stitches by hand. And if you are fortunate enough to have a quilt that has been passed down within your family, remember it truly is a time capsule that represents not just the person who made it, but the time period they lived in, the textiles available to them, and the legacy that the art of quilting continues to inspire.

The Texas Quilt Museum
A Treasury of Amish Quilts by Rachel Thomas Pellman, Kenneth Pelman: Good Books (1990)
The Quilt: A History and Celebration of an American Art Form by Elise Schebler Roberts: Voyageur Press (2007)


  1. We saw some gorgeous quilting in the Amish country of Pennsylvania recently, and the Hawaiians have beautiful patterns, too.

    I have a hand-stitched quilt top that my great grandmother left me. Some day I hope to learn how to quilt the whole thing.

    Great post!

  2. Yes, I have quilts made by my mother back in the forties and fifties. They are real treasures. It strikes me that they are so small--we're used to queen size coverings. I use them to cover a table or chest, or sometimes for a cot to cover a grandchild. They're heavy, too.
    A special book I have is titled Texas Tears and Texas Sunshine, a book about several women who settled Texas with their husbands. Today, these names are familiar to many of us.
    Texas Tears, Texas Sunshine, Log Cabin, and Lone Star--names of quilts these women created by seeing and studying a pattern on the floor, made by the sun shining in through crude curtains, or some such thing.
    The four important periods of the settling of Texas are named after one of these quilt names.
    You see how important women were to the settling of our state.
    Thanks for the wonderful post and the fantastic photos.
    Once did an outstanding job.

  3. Thank you, Tanya. I took a quilting class years ago when I was pregnant, and made a quilt top based on Amish colors against the black background -- the same color scheme as the first quilt picture posted under the heading. I still have to actually quilt it to the backing. I might add the child I was pregnant with at the time turns 21 years old tomorrow, so yeah -- better get right on it. LOL

  4. Celia, the book you described almost brought tears to my eyes. I am going to have to add it to my library. I love your comment about how important women were in settling our state of Texas. So true. I actually have a letter written by my great-grandmother (who came to Texas in a covered wagon) to my grandmother in which she says she is making a quilt for one of her sons but talks about a cotton shortage, and how she longs to finish it. I so admire women who sew and do embroidery, quilting, etc. There is a special patience one must have, I think, to do it well. And for these pioneer women, I think it also brought them a sense of peace -- just to sit and have time to sew after the days chores were done, caring for the family, etc.((hugs))

  5. Ashley, I have a quilt from my Hero's family that is from 1889 in the Ocean Wave pattern. It's made from scraps of clothing the family wore, and the colors are all pretty drab. The woman who gave it to me used it, and it needs restoring in a few places. I just don't know if that would detract or add to the value. I have a beautiful red on cream quilt my grandmother made for my mom's hope chest around 1936. I also have a couple people made at the baby shower just before I was born. I treasure each of these, as well as numerous other quilts from the family. Great post!

  6. WOW, Caroline! How wonderful to have so many quilt treasures. Besides the Amish design top I made years ago, I have a quilt top made by my great-grandmother, grandmother and great aunts, which needs to be finished. I really need to do it myself, although time and a fear of screwing it up makes me hesitate. I have been tempted to send it to these Amish women to finish by hand. I do have two beautiful completed quilts, one from my sister, Karen, that I keep on a rocking chair in my writing loft. The other is very old and stored away. But I want to take it out and put it on a rack of some sort. :)

  7. Quilts are a wonderful family heirloom. I have a wedding ring one that my grandmother hand-stitched the top and my daughter put it together for me. And I have one of small squares with fabric I remember that my grandmother stitched and my other daughter sewed together for me and I have a beautiful rose quilt my youngest daughter made for me. I also have a quilt sitting in my closet I started 30 years ago that needs to be quilted. One of these days...

    I can understand the woman using the craft she knew to document her life and the children she had. It's touching.

  8. Lovely post, Ashley. When my daughter passed away I started making quilts and have given away 37 of them in her name. I had heard it was a way to help with grief so totally understand why the mother started making them. It is sad the way it turned out, but if it helped her, then I am glad she did it.

    My quilts are bright colors, especially the baby quilts made out of flannel with children's prints on them. I also make quilts that have photos printed onto fabric. It is fun and seeing the reaction of the person you give them to is so heartwarming that I hope to continue doing this until my fingers freeze up. I also make book cover quilts for friends when they have sold their 24th book because I need that many covers to complete the quilt properly.

  9. Paty, How wonderful that you have quilt tops stitched by your grandmother and also finished by your daughters, as well as the rose quilt another daughter made. The tradition of quilt making has remained a constant in your family, carrying over at least three generations of the same family. Most likely your grandmother learned how to sew and make quilts from a family member as well. Just wonderful! Thanks so much for your comment. :)

  10. Dear Paisley - I cannot think of a more beautiful, touching way to remember your daughter than by making quilts in her memory. And I love the idea of the book cover quilt, too. What an amazing gift for a writer. I would love to see photos!!! Thanks, sweetie, for posting your comments. I appreciate it.


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