|Bunches of Grapes Antique Appliquéd Quilt, The Boston Museum|
The Art of the Appliquéd Quilt
The word appliqué is derived from the Latin “applicare”, meaning to join or attach, and the French “appliquer”, meaning to put on. It’s thought that the art of appliqué was first invented in India and Persia, then traveled to Europe where it was used as a less labor-intensive substitute for raised embroidery in the decoration of household linens, vestments, and altar cloths.
Appliqué, often described as painting in fabric, is the fancy ornamental sister of patchwork. Whereas patchwork quilting is made by sewing many small geometric pieces of fabric together to form one large piece, appliquéd quilts are made from cutting out fabric shapes and sewing them onto a large piece of fabric. The background fabric is often white, and the appliqués are sometimes stuffed with padding to create a more three-dimensional look.
As in patchwork quilts, the appliquéd quilts of bygone days were often completed by groups of women at quilting bees. The quilting bee was a social gathering for women where they could exchange news and gossip as they stitched. It often ended in the evening with the arrival of the men and children for a special supper party.
With materials on the frontier scarce, resourceful pioneer women would carefully patch clothing and household items. When these items became beyond repair, the good sections of fabric were cut into small scraps that were pieced together to make new quilts to replace ones that had worn out. These quilts were more utilitarian than decorative, using whatever materials were available.
However, as newfound affluence began to relieve the burden of the early settlers, women found they had both the means to purchase new fabrics and the time to indulge in more creative outlets. The economical patchwork quilt made way for the more time-consuming and intricate appliquéd quilt.
At the same time a new middle class was emerging in Great Britain. By the 1800s appliquéd quilts had become quite popular in both England and America. By the Victorian era friendship quilts, freedom quilts, autograph quilts, and friendship medleys became popular forms of commemorating friendships and events, such as marriages and births.
Unlike functional quilts that were created to provide warmth and used until they wore out, friendship and autograph quilts were not used on a daily basis. They were carefully stored and only taken out to display on special occasions. For this reason, many have survived, having been passed down from one generation to the next. Some are still treasured by descendants. Others can now be found in many museums.