The History of Patchwork

The earliest example of patchwork is a silk coverlet from 1718, though the methods of patchwork and quilting have been around since medieval times. Although closely linked to quilting, patchwork is a different needlework technique. Patchwork involves sewing together sections of fabric to produce a flat design. In Britain, the most common method is known as ‘piecing over paper’ in which the pattern is first drawn on paper, then accurately cut. Small pieces of fabric are then folded around the paper shapes and tacked into place. These shapes are then joined together at the back using a whipstitch.

Patchwork is linked to the domestic economy, as it was a way to use up scraps of fabric or prolong the life of clothing, although not all patchwork was made for reasons of economy. There’s evidence that some quilts were made from specially bought fabric, which has been attributed to middle-class women making them for pleasure rather than out of necessity, and many soldiers sewed quilts whilst posted overseas in the 19th century.

Patchwork is a great way to track the different materials such as fine silks and velvets in the 17th and 18th centuries though most patchwork examples come from the 19th century, where intricate designs portrayed biblical scenes, world events, and even playing card designs. This type of patchwork was popular, and several were displayed at the great exhibition in 1852. The use of patchwork declined over the 20th century, but in the 1960’s it was revived in a look associated with hippie culture and by the end of the century, patchwork became a technique used by artists like Tracy Emin to explore the meaning behind ‘women art’.

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