Medallion & wholecloth quilts
Nov 14, 2018 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
This week I’ve been thinking about friendship. Sometimes togetherness is expressed through a shared meal, while other times it takes the form of a treasured object. (Like snuggling up on a chilly autumn night with a quilt made by people who care.) We’ve already talked about the mental health benefits of handiwork, but there’s another benefit to making something for someone else – the joy found in giving. Quilts are perhaps my favorite handmade expression of comfort and love and they have quite the storied history. The origin of quilt making dates back to ancient Egypt and quilts were even used during the 12th century as an article of clothing under armor.
But in a young America, quilts became the artistic currency of the day – showcasing a lady’s fine needlework skills and often times providing a source of income. Some quilts were even advertisements in a sense, conveying views on an era’s political and social issues. The abolitionists would create intricately-designed quilts with anti-slavery poems and sayings. These quilts were sold to raise funds for the cause and to raise awareness. During times of war, women would make quilts for soldiers and while most were more utilitarian in design, I can imagine for the men on the front line these simple quilts felt like a hug from home. There are so many interesting styles and techniques in quilt making, but today we’ll learn more about two in particular: medallion and wholecloth quilts.
For quilt enthusiasts, a framed medallion quilt is the pinnacle of any collection. A medallion quilt design is focused on the center, with blocks branching out in either a symmetrical or asymmetrical fashion. The central design (which would often feature a detailed applique or pattern), is surrounded by one or more borders. These borders were often darker in color, contrasting with the other blocks and highlighting the quilt’s construction. This technique arrived in America thanks to European immigrants, becoming the preferred style from the mid 1700s to early 1800s – however, the medallion quilt remained popular in its homeland well beyond the 1800s.
When the medallion quilt was at the height of its glory in America, fabric manufacturers took note of the trend. A young quilter could buy panels made specifically for the center of their medallion quilt and these panels often featured baskets or trees. Additional pre-made panels could be modified to bring some patternwork to the borders as well. Medallion quilts love to play with symmetry and geometry, with star shapes and hexagon mosaic patterns becoming all the rage by the early 1800s. At the peak of its fame, you’ll find quilts that brought some of the detail and pattern into the borders as well, making for beautifully detailed illustrations.
Did you know an early nickname for wholecloth quilts was linsey-woolsey? This is an homage to the village of Lindsay in Suffolk, England, where some of the first quilting fabric was produced.
Popularity waned as sewing technology advanced, but the medallion quilt did enjoy a brief renaissance during the early 20th century. Most of the examples from this time period featured more embroidery than their predecessors. Medallion quilts offered the artist nearly infinite ways to express their creativity by overlaying designs, patterns, and geometry. Our next quilt technique predates medallion, but the two styles co-existed quite peacefully…
The name for this type of quilt is a bit misleading – while called “whole” cloth, these quilts are really composed of several individual strips of cloth (typically dyed to the same color). This European technique was born out of necessity as early looms were limited, only able to produce smaller dimensions of material. There’s another special construction element with wholecloth quilts and that’s the three layer system: quilt top, filling, and backing. The stitches that hold all these components together served both the functional and decorative role, so the artist used the sewing needle as her paintbrush!
Many quilters “painted” nature scenes, with beautiful feathers or flowers dotting the fabric landscape. If the artist was feeling particularly fancy, they would employ a method known as trapunto. (Doesn’t that sound chic?) Trapunto is sort of like a reverse carving – instead of taking away layers, the quilter would add layers of filling to certain areas. This change in depth added relief to certain parts of the quilt and really made the design pop.
In addition to the use of texture, white or beige tones were also used to stunning effect. With the popularity of white cotton fabric growing, quilters found an ideal canvas for their detailed needlework creations. Some of these quilts were called “white on white” quilts as a result. While these two quilting styles offer very different results, in both cases you can feel the love and joy infused into each stitch. Tell me dear readers, what’s your favorite craft to make and share?