The word "quilt" comes from the Latin "culcita," meaning stuffed sack or cushion. Quilting refers to the stitching holding together three layers: a pieced or appliqued cover, filling and backing. The earliest evidence of quilting is a circa-3400 B.C. carved ivory figure in the British Museum of an Egyptian pharaoh wearing what looks like a quilted mantle.
Quilted clothing and bedding, primarily professionally made luxury goods for the wealthy, are mentioned in 13th-century French and Dutch accounts. By the 15th century, inventories from some wealthy English households mentioned specific quilts detail.
Although quilting techniques must have been well-known to the earliest colonists, references to American quilts first appeared in the late 17th century. It wasn't until the 1800s that quilts were made and owned by Americans of all classes. Quilts also reached their highest expression as folk art during the 19th century.
No longer content merely to document old American quilts, scholars are probing deeper into quilt research. They're asking why labor-intensive decorative quilts were made when woven blankets were just as warm. They're examining quilting's economic impact on communities and how migrations can be traced through the dissemination of quilt patterns and techniques.
They're also looking at how industrial technology affected quilt-making and what quilts reveal about gender roles in early American society. According to scholar Patricia Keller of Oxford, Pa., current research may dispel much folklore, such as tales of old quilts being pieced, out of necessity, from settler's worn-out clothing, and the notion of communal quilting bees.