I’ve often thought about the history of the quilting motif.
My interest is piqued by the simple hand-sewn finishing touches applied by long ago quilters to bind the layers of quilts together and how the quilting motif has evolved. So many of today’s quilters incorporate intricately machine-generated stitches to create quilting motifs to complement the design of their quilts. The quilting becomes as much a part of the quilt’s design as the fabric patches.
I remember one of my grandmothers didn’t make a quilt that she didn’t also tie with short bits of yarn, no more than 3″ long, in a 5″ grid to finish her quilts. My other grandmother, after she couldn’t see to hand quilt as well, would treadle away making machine stitches to fill in the shapes of the patches in the quilt top. Personally, I hand-quilted to finish to my quilts until I came to admire the additional beauty a machine-made quilting motif can add to the overall design of the quilt.
The Beginning of Quilting Motif Designs
Quilters can spend as much time planning their quilting designs as they do the overall design of the quilt patch and block placement. How did the quilting motif become such an important design element?
The custom of stitching layers of fiber together has a long history, dating back to the early 11th century when the early Persians, Portuguese, and Oriental cultures incorporated quilting motifs into clothing, window, and bed treatments to prevent the chill of cold temperatures. Early stitching was simple, starting with diagonal lines. Later, quilters became more decorative in their designs, integrating ornamental motifs with sprays, scrolls, and patterns from nature such as leaves and floral patterns.
The colonial settlers brought quilting to America, merging memories from their European ancestors with patterns that exposed the feelings of being in a new country. Pineapples, pomegranates, and fern-leaf, and more florals were seen in the quilts of the southern states during that time. Even though finishing touches were utilitarian at first, their importance as an element of design increased over time. It wasn’t long before quilting as a finishing touch in a quilt was a highly prized art—as we see in more quilts today.
Transferring the pattern
As time passed transferring a quilting motif to prepare a quilt top for quilting also changed. Quilters copied their quilting patterns onto thin paper in the early 1800s. A tracing wheel was used to transfer designs to quilt tops. Quilters also used plates, saucers, and coins to make designs, drawing around the items with a pencil or chalk. At the end of the 19th century, women’s magazines and newspapers distributed quilting motifs for readers to transfer. During these earlier times, hand-quilted motifs were used to join the layers of a quilt together.
In the first part of the 20th century, quilters started using sewing machines to create their finishing touch. And now, there are high-end sewing machines designed just for quilting, a domestic style or a longarm machine set up with technology to choose and stitch an endless number of quilting motifs or to allow a designer to use their imagination to add to the beauty of a finished quilt.
Free Quilting Motif Designs
The Quilting Company is celebrating the evolution of the quilting motif with a new series, called Finishing Touches, in three of our publications: Love of Quilting, McCall’s Quilting, and Quiltmaker. You’ll find a different quilting motif in each of these publications, beginning with the May/June 2019 issues. We’ve included examples using the motif in two of the patterns in each of the issues. You can download copies of the free motifs on our bi-monthly blog posts: Finishing Touches: The Quilting Motif.
Love of Quilting May/June 2019
Download the Floral Heart quilting motif.
McCall’s Quilting May/June 2019
Download the Sun Feathers quilting motif.
Quiltmaker May/June 2019
Download the Celebration quilting motif.
Look for the next set of free Quilting Company quilting motifs in June!