Quilting did not start in Colonial America as some may believe. As a point of fact, the British Museum’s Egyptian Collection includes an ivory carving from the First Dynasty which features the king wearing a quilted mantle. The oldest surviving quilted object, a linen carpet, is believed to be from the 1st century BC. Even Henry VIII of England lists quilts among his bed linen inventory.
Most women in the American Colonies during the mid to late 18th century were busy spinning, weaving, and sewing in order to clothe themselves and their families. Only the wealthy had leisure time for making quilts. They were mainly created as decorative pieces to display the fine needlework of the quilt maker.
Before electricity, women mainly quilted in daylight. When possible, they brought their quilting frames outdoors in good weather so that they could enjoy the superior light. It is doubtful women spent time quilting by the fireside. It is more likely they worked on mending and knitting in such poor lighting conditions.
The industrial revolution brought about a dramatic change as textiles began to be manufactured on a wider scale. Cotton prints could be bought to make clothing or quilts. Women no longer had to spend their time spinning and weaving fabric because commercial fabrics were becoming affordable to almost every family. Quilt making became more widespread.
Pioneer women brought quilts with them to Texas. They were encouraged to bring enough bedding to last several years after they arrived, suggesting that quilting supplies and time would be scarce on the frontier. Once here, quilts helped add warmth and beauty as well as a connection to their former home left behind.
During the Colonial Revival Period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, quilts reflected the romantic notion of the colonial period as a simple and noble time. Quilting during this time allowed women to believe they were participating in a needle art practiced by their colonial grandmothers.
Several early Collin County quilts, and many examples from the Colonial Revival Period are part of the historic quilt exhibit, “Pieces of the Past,” open through March 23 at the Collin County Historical Society & Museum, located at 300 E. Virginia St. in McKinney. For more information please visit collincountyhistoricalsociety.org.