Early quilting

From a very early time, needlework was considered one of the accomplishments of a woman, and excellence in the sewing arts was an important skill, and from at least Medieval times, quilting and decorative needle work was practiced in the highest households, while in the humblest, it was a matter of necessity, as there were no ready-made clothes in the modern sense to be had.

During the Medieval period, (and indeed long before), accomplished women of the upper classes and their servants created tapestries which provided both decoration and insulation from the damp and cold. These tapestries were heavily embroidered with scenes of life at that time - the hunt, warfare, court, and scenes from favorite romances and religious themes. Some of these themes and needle expertise were later transferred to quilting.

One of the most famous is the Bayeaux Tapestry, which is approximately half a metre tall (20 inches) and 70 metres (about 230 feet) long. It tells the Norman side of the story of the events leading up to the Norman Invasion of England and the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066. It is not strictly speaking a tapestry, but an embroidery. It was constructed using colored wool, from eight separate pieces of bleached linen which were stitched together to form a continuous panel. At one stage it was apparently even longer - perhaps seven or eight metres are missing. It is easy to see techniques and needlework that would eventually be incorporated into quilting.

Many fabric historians have said that Crusaders brought quilting to Europe from the Middle East beginning in the 11th century. However, it seems possible that it was independently developed earlier in Europe's cool climes, or that the Vikings, who ranged almost everywhere in the ancient world, including the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Africa, could have brought it back with them earlier. Unfortunately, the European climate and soil is not kind to fabrics, so there is little hope of definitively proving an earlier origin, barring a chance discovery.

However they got there, quilted garments (and probably other quilted artifacts) were popular early in the Middle Ages, and remained so on into the Renaissance and beyond.

Among the earliest known surviving bed quilts is the famous "Tristan" quilt ( sometimes called the Tristan and Isolde, or the Guicciardini Quilt,) from Sicily, dating from the end of the fourteenth century.

Section of the Tristan Quilt in the Victoria and Albert Museum

(Photo courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum Museum)

The Tristan Quilt is one of the earliest surviving quilts. Depicting scenes from the story of Tristan and Isolde, originally (like the Arthurian tales) a Celtic tragic romance that passed into the "amour courtois" ("courtly love") repertoire of the medieval troubadours.

Made in Sicily during the second half of the 14th century, there are now two sections of the quilt, one in the Victoria and Albert Museum's Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, (which also has a number of fascinating quilted pieces from Europe and Asia), and the other in the Bargello Museum in Florence.

(A third Tristan-themed quilt is in a private collection, but is not thought to be part of the Guicciardini Tristan Quilt.)

The Tristan is an example of what is called "whole cloth" quilting, in which a piece of solid white or colored cloth is used instead of pieced work or other techniques. The beauty of these elegant quilts comes from elaborate, often tightly quilted motifs which provide both texture and decoration, techniques requiring highly skilled needlework. Generally only women of the upper classes, or their ladies and servants had the time to develop skills of this level. Some featured floral, feathered and/or geometric motifs, while others depicted artifacts, animals, and people. Many were based on popular tales from medieval lore or legend, the Bible, or other themes sung or recited by the wandering minstrels. The Tristan quilt is one such.

The Tristan is made of two sheets of linen, padded with wool, and depicts scenes from the legend backstitched in cream and brown linen thread with captions in a Sicilian dialect done in trapunto relief. (Trapunto is a method of quilting that is also called "stuffed technique" inserting extra batting or cloth to produce a puffy, raised surface.)

Note the similarities of technique and design with the famed Bayeaux Tapestry. (Above.)

In May of 1540, the tragic Katherine Howard received 23 quilts of quilted sarsenet (a type of silk) from the royal wardrobe as a sign of royal favor.

In July, she and Henry VIII were married, and she was executed in 1542.

An equally tragic queen with an interest in quilts was Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. Her unfortunate marriage to the handsome (but apparently dim-witted and unpleasant) Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, was terminated rather suddenly in 1567 when he spent the night in a house in Kirk-o'-Fields. Despite a nice bedspread of quilted taffeta, he did not spend a cozy evening, as the house was blown up (and presumably the bedspread as well), and he was strangled - probably "tae mak' siccar!" (in the old Broad Scots parlance, "to make sure").

This unfortunate turn of events, combined with several other problems (such as her Catholicism in Reformation Scotland and French Court dress, manners and ways), led to the rebellion that unseated her, and eventually left her a captive of her cousin, Elizabeth Tudor of England.

At Hardwicke Hall, there is a fragment of a bed hanging and a quilt said to have been done by Mary, when she was imprisoned there. The hanging is applied patchwork, with cream-colored medallions and a design singed on to the light-colored velvet. The singed birds, flowers, and butterflies are outlined with black silk thread. The worked medallions are applied to a foundation of green velvet, ornamented between and around them with yellow silk cord.

Reproduction inspired by Mary's needlework.

(Courtesy of Historika Rum, Sweden)

An attendant at the time wrote of her; "that all day she wrought with her nydil and that the diversity of the colors made the work seem less tedious and she continued so long at it that veray payn made hir to give over."

Elizabeth I, who eventually had her cousin executed, had a wardrobe list that included quilted dresses.

There are many mentions in other period inventories, letters and lists of quilts and quilting. From an inventory at Kenilworth, seat of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, (one of Elizabeth's favorites) in 1584:

"Item a faire quilte of crymson sattin, vi breadths, iij yards 3 quarters raile deep, all lozenged over with silver twiste, in the midst of a cinquefoil with a garland of ragged staves, fringed aboute with a small fringe of cryson silke, lined with white fustion."

From an inventory of goods with values from Sir John Perrott's Carew Castle in 1592:

Item ij old quiltes of yellowe sercnet, xxs

Item a changable silke quilt, price xxs

Item an old black and white silk quilt for a bedd, price iijs

Quilting in Warfare

Though we usually think of quilting in a context of peaceful pursuits, quilting has also played a role in warfare over the centuries, both as armor and a protective layer under metal armor.

European knights wore a variety of quilted jackets or tunics, and the terminology used to describe them again differs depending on the period and source.

An early form was the haqueton (also known as an aketon, or acton), which is also called agambeson by some sources. It was worn under armor and helmets for comfort and to pad their bodies from blows, and in some cases, in lieu of armor. The term is said to have originated withCrusaders and is thought to derive from the word "cotton".

The jupon (also called a gambeson) was an over-armor tunic to protect the armor from thesun, particularly in the Middle East during the Crusades - armor gets quite hot in direct sunlight.

(NB: There is ongoing debate over the exact meanings of gambeson, jupon, and haqueton. I amfollowing the definitions as used by most of the authorities I have studied. In the case of the illustrations here, I follow McClintock, the author.)

The jupon later evolved to a quilted and decorated short, fitted surcoat, worn over armour in the14th and early 15th centuries. Made of several thicknesses of fabric, the outer layer was often a richvelvet or silk, with the owner’s arms embroidered or appliquéd on.

The warriors also used quilted padding under their helmets and sometimes under the armor wornon the arms and legs. In all cases, the material and padding used varied greatly with the wealth andstatus of the user. The higher classes used linen and silk, with horsehair or other batting, and thepoorer soldiers used rougher material with grass or tow batting.

Here are some early representations of military quilting. These are tomb effigies depicted in H. F.McClintock's classic work, "Old Irish and Highland Dress with Notes on That of the Isle of Man" (Dundalk, Dundalgan Press, 1943).

On the left is an Irish knight of the Burke family, at Glinsk, Co. Galway. The effigy on the right is of a Highland chief from Islay in the Hebrides of Scotland. Both are c. 13th century. You can see a peek of the haqueton on the effigy on the left, under his mail armor hauberk (a long mail shirt that reached to below the hips or knees - the shorter version that went to the waist only is called a habergeon, aka haubergeon or habergon.). The figure on the right has only a mail coif, and thusalmost his entire haqueton is visible.

(These depictions have been in the past been mistaken for "kilts", but, "Braveheart's" numerous errata notwithstanding, it is generally accepted by most scholars that kilts per se didn't develop in their earliest known form until about the 16th century. Their present form began to develop about 1725. They were never Irish garb, other than perhaps of the Scoto-Irish mercenaries who traveled back and forth fighting in the various wars and campaigns. For an interesting history of tartan by an expert researcher, see: Peter E. MacDonald)

Mail is flexible armor made up of interlocking metal rings, the rings composing a piece of mailwould be riveted shut, and is quite ancient. Mail was invented some time in the mid 1stmillennium BC, but it's unknown where. The earliest finds are from 5th century BC Scythian graves.The word "chainmail" is modern - in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, chain was the Englishname, while maille was the common French name for it. Maille (and alternative spellings such as "maile") derive from the Italian maglia, from the Latin macula, meaning "net".)

An example of mail armor of "1-in-4" type

(i.e. 1 ring is linked to 4 others)

Below is an engraving by the famous German artist, Albrecht Dürer, c. 1521, depicting Irish mercenaries in Germany. Note the figure on the left who wears a quilted garment which may beworn over armor, or in place of it.

The most complete example of quilted armor-clothing is in the Cathedral of Chartres, probably placed there by Charles VI of France, c. 1400 A.D. It is an "arming coat" in excellent condition, made of quilted white linen stuffed with wool and covered with crimson silk damask, woven with medallions containing heraldic birds and beasts, and interspersed with foliage. It is mid-thigh length with a scalloped lower edge, closes at center front with 25 wooden buttons covered with the same crimson damask and has long, loose, sleeves which taper to the wrist. On the left side are two slits to accommodate the straps of the sword scabbard.

(Image from Arms and Armour of the Medieval Knight, by David Edge and John Miles Paddock, published by Saturn Books, 1996)

Elsewhere in the world, Mali warriors wore quilted suits of armor for protection in battle as earlyas the 1300’s, and in the Sudan, quilted garments were worn as protective armor for both warriorsand their horses.

Until the end of the 19th century, the Fulani calvary (a nomadic people of West Africa) wore quilted cloaks (sometime decorated in patchwork). Under the cloaks, heavy quilted armor (made in several pieces to protect different parts of the body) was worn. These were worn over metal body armor or chainmail.

As with Europe, some of the earliest first known quilting in the Americas were suits of quilted armor among the Aztecs, Mayas, and other native forces. According to Fray Duran, a monk who described the Aztecs, and other contemporary sources, Aztec warriors were well equipped with jackets of dense maguey cactus fiber with "brine-soaked" quilted cotton padding for the limbs. The Aztecs called this type of jacket "ichcahuipill." They also used wooden helmets, and the officers added padded vambraces and greaves (armor for the arms and legs). Here is a drawing of Aztec warriors taken from a contemporary Aztec depiction. The quilted armor, although quite stylized, iseasily recognizable.

The Spanish found this armor effective against the Aztecs' own weapons of sharp obsidian, thoughless so against the Spaniards' weapons of steel and their firearms, or the maquahuitl - described by Diaz as a "dreadful broadsword" and "two-handed cutting sword."

Many Spaniards substituted the Aztecs' lightweight breastplates for their own hot, heavy, metalarmor, better suited for Europe than the heat of South America. The Aztec word ichcahuipillbecame corrupted in Spanish as escaupilla, though they were also sometimes simply referred to asarmas de la tierra--"arms of the country", i.e., native armor. However, they were never able to successfully reproduce the Aztec armor (possibly due to deliberate misinformation given by captive Aztec craftsmen).

There are many mentions of quilting in connection with armor from many periods, though there are few examples left for obvious reasons.