Quilts, two layers of fabric enclosing a central core of wadding or batting, made their first appearance in clothing. The idea of quilted clothing may have been brought to Europe by the Crusaders, who saw it used as a form of armor by their opponents. Later, quilted fabrics were used as draperies, to ward off the winter cold. The use of quilts as bed coverings began in England and continental Europe in the 18th century--and it was this tradition that the American colonists brought with them to the New World
Contrary to popular belief, the making of patchwork quilts was not a common practice in colonial America. Fabric of any kind was too rare and too expensive. What quilts existed were often whole-cloth quilts made to show off a particular length of printed material. The patchwork block quilt and the sharing and naming of block patterns was an American development which had its heyday in the years leading up to and following the Civil War.
In the 1970's there was a revival of quiltmaking in America. One factor in this renewed interest may have been the 1971 exhibit at the Whitney Museum, entitled "Abstract Design in American Quilts." For the first time in America, and later in Europe as the exhibit traveled, people saw quilts hanging in a museum setting. While many quilters continued to enjoy working with the patterns and methods of their mothers and grandmothers, another group, some coming from fine arts backgrounds, began to use fabric in non-traditional ways. This was the beginning of the art quilt movement.
Art quilts have a dual nature. They retain the physical qualities of traditional quilts, usually consisting of three layers stitched together. However, their designs are unique. Some art quilters choose to work by adapting and reinterpreting traditional themes in innovative ways. Others regard the quilt as a canvas, and create one-of-a-kind fabric paintings, either abstract or representational, over the whole surface. Robert Shaw describes it this way, "modern quilt artists have taken the traditional bed quilt and are expanding its expressive possibilities using some of today's most innovative studio techniques."*
*Quote from Robert Shaw, The Art Quilt, Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc., 1997, page 7. Robert Shaw's book Quilts: A Living Tradition, Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc., 1995, was also used as a source for the above information.