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Ancient Fabrics & Quilt Origins

What is a Quilt?

Since one of my hobbies is linguistics, I started by looking up the word to see what its history was. Quilt derives from the Middle English quilte, (mattress), which in turn comes from Old French cuilte, (meaning much the same thing), and thence from Latin culcita, meaning a stuffed sack, or mattress. Variations on the spelling are wide, from cowltes to qwhilteq.

A quilt as usually defined and visualized today is a bed covering of two layers of fabric, with wool, down, or another filling or padding between them, stitched (usually in patterns) or tied through all thicknesses to prevent the filling from shifting. However, quilted clothing, which is also of great antiquity, is again on the rise.

Although quilting is now often considered a uniquely American craft, it had its origins in many times and places. For this reason, and the fragility of cloth, it is difficult to assign the title of "first quilt" to any particular time or place. Many countries eventually developed forms of quilted garments and bed and wall coverings, some plain, others highly decorated.

Early Types of Cloth

The first cloth that was produced was probably made from vegetable fiber, probably woven grass or bark strips, similar to that which some remote ethnic groups still use. This was later supplanted by linen (fiber from the stalk of flax). The earliest linen found to date is believed to have been made circa 5,000 BC. (Nettles also produce a similar fiber.)

Once animals were domesticated, hair and wool became more accessible and sheep and goat's wool were used. Early sheep are believed to have been mainly brown and grey, but as sheep were bred, white wool was produced.

There have been many fascinating archaeological finds of ancient fabrics, and more are coming to light each year. We also now have more sophisticated means of dating and analyzing these fabrics from the past, which add to our knowledge

In warmer, drier, climates, such as Egypt, where cloth tends to be better preserved, linen was used for clothing and bedding, among other things. The earliest example of what is believed to be a quilted garment is seen on a carved ivory figure of a pharaoh of the Egyptian First Dynasty (c. 3400 B.C.). However, it may also just be a pattern in the fabric. It is often difficult to tell exactly what the carver intended to portray in statuary.

Near the ancient Silk Road, the trade route between East and West for centuries, what is believed to be the oldest known quilted rug was found in a Scythian chieftain's tomb at Noin-Ula, southwest of Lake Baikal in Russia. It was discovered by the Koslow scientific expedition (Russian, 1924 to 1926). The central pattern incorporates a motif of clockwise and counter-clockwise spirals, with smaller scrolls joined, to make a continuous pattern. There is a narrow border around the quilted center with a row of geometrically shaped interlocking patterns, which is outlined with a closely stitched twisted thread quilted to the foundation. It was dated from sometime between the second and first centuries B.C. It is now in Leningrad at the Institute of Archeology of the Academy of Sciences.

Early Decorative Needlework, Applique, and Other Techniques

Decorative work on cloth was very likely an early development, given that humans have been making decorative designs and trim for pottery, tools, weapons, and most of their artifacts since very early in their history. We see geometric and other designs on clothing from many cultures and periods.

Four thousand years ago, a community lived in the Tarim Basin, near the end of the "Silk Road" in what is now the Xinjiang region of NW China. They thrived for at least 1,500 years, and there are indications that they survived as a culture even into the second century.

About the turn of the 20th century, a few well-preserved mummies were found in the region. They had been preserved not by art, but by the saline soil and extreme aridity of the region. They were ignored at the time because they were considered atypical, perhaps just a few traders who had been in the region and perished.

However, in the 1970s, more and more came to light, buried together in large cemeteries.

They had long reddish-blond hair, and Caucasoid features, and their DNA shows that they were genetically related to some modern European groups. We cannot say what their language was, but it is possible that they may have been related to the later Tocharians, a known Indo-European speaking community whose clothes and appearance (judging from we know from period pictures) bear a strong resemblance to the Tarim mummies.

Their colorful fabrics included felt, plaited wool, and interestingly, what we now call tartan or plaid. (For more on this subject, see "The Tarim Mummies" by Drs. J. P. Mallory and Victor H. Mair, and; "The Mummies of Urumchi" by Dr. E. J. W. Barber.  Their colleague, Dr.  Irene Good, also participated in the digs, and provided some of the excellent photographs.)

(For an interesting history of tartan, see the site of Peter E. MacDonald

Textiles decorated with applique were found in the excavations of Pazyryk in Siberian Russia, south of Novosibirsk, near the borders with China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. This site was originally excavated by the archaeologist Sergei Ivanovich Rudenko. It contains ancient Bronze Age barrow tomb mounds called kurgans. These are made of larch logs covered over by large cairns of boulders and stones. They contain inhumation burials of chiefs dating to the Altai nomadic culture (c. 6th to 4th century BC). The permafrost preserved the bodies, as well as grave goods including leather, fur, felt, and textiles. Among the finds were cloth saddles, felt and woolen rugs (including the world's oldest pile carpet) and other remarkable objects.

One of the pieces recovered was a saddle-blanket with appliquéd felt figures of fighting animals (now at the Hermitage in Leningrad). The example of the saddle blanket illustrates the Altai people's sense of color and ornamental decoration. The figures show primarily those animals that the nomads believed were blessed with supernatural powers that protected man.

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                                                                                                             To Be Continued