This practical guide to quilt types covers quilting origins, different ways quilts are made, and other unique quilt types.
Where Do Quilts Come From?
Quilts come from many different countries and cultures. American quilting traditions are tied to time, region, and culture. From colonial times, to the Civil War era, to prohibition, different periods had different quilting methods, themes, materials, and patterns. Other distinct quilting styles include:
- Amish Quilts: Original Amish patterns include popular double wedding ring, sunshine and shadow, tree of life, log cabin, and star of Bethlehem patterns. Authentic Amish quilts are always hand-made and hand-sewn (or sewn using a non-electric sewing machine). The Amish are known for intricate quilting and striking, simple designs.
- Gee’s Bend Quilts: Quilting in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, an isolated African-American hamlet, began in the 1800s, and the tradition continues today. These quilts are distinctive because of their improvisations, boldness, and geometric simplicity. While improvised and abstract patterns are common, the Gee’s Bend community is also known for the Housetop pattern.
- Baltimore Album Quilts: This style of quilt is a specific take on the album quilt that flourished in Baltimore, Maryland, in the 1840s. Like all album quilts, each square in a Baltimore Album Quilt is unique. BAQs are highly detailed, often with intricate embroidery, and use red and green as primary colors. This style of quilting has seen a resurgence in recent years.
- Ozark Region Quilts: Quilting in the Ozarks of Alabama and Missouri also dates to the 1800s, with many traditional patterns, such as the log cabin, being used. The quilting tradition continues in the region, with well-known quilt shops, a quilt trail, and an annual quilt fair.
- Native American Star Quilts: Plains tribes adapted quilting in the late 1800s, immediately using a star—which holds special spiritual significance—as a central motif. Giving a star quilt bestows honor, and the tradition of giving one of these quilts to honor and for significant events—such as graduation—continue in many tribes today.
- Hawaiian Quilts: These quilts are whole cloth quilts, with one fabric used for the base and a second fabric used as an appliqué top layer. The appliqué typically consists of a border and a center design, usually inspired by the beauty of Hawaii’s natural environment. Hawaiian quilting began in the 1800s as well, and this style of quilt continues to be popular.
Different Ways of Making Quilts
Quilts are constructed from intricately stitching together two layers of fabric, with a layer of filling in between. The top layer of fabric’s pattern is the major way that quilts are distinguished. The three main types of quilt are whole cloth, pieced, and appliqué.
Plain or Whole Cloth Quilts
Whole cloth quilts are made with a single piece of material on top and back, with the design coming solely from the quilting stich work. These were traditionally made as wedding quilts, often with intricate floral patterns to the stitching.
Today, some cheaper quilts that appear to be patchwork are actually whole cloth quilts, with the patchwork pattern printed directly onto a single cloth rather than pieced together.
Patchwork or Pieced Quilts
Pieced quilts are one of the more common types of quilt and what most people think of when they think of quilts. A patchwork quilt is made up of different pieces of fabric sewn together to create the quilt’s the top layer. Patchwork quilts can be made of any type of block and can be more or less structured.
Famous pieced quilt patterns include log cabin, Irish chain, samplers, jelly rolls, postage stamp, and hexagon.
So-called ‘crazy’ quilts have an asymmetric design that became popular in 1800s. These zany quilts are often marked by creative embroidering on velvet and silk.
Piece quilts are sometimes made through paper piecing or foundation piecing. These methods allow for sharper edges and involve sewing fabric onto paper. English paper piecing quilts are usually hand-sewn and made by first wrapping fabric around paper.
Appliqué quilts are made by sewing various shapes to a background, so one fabric is sewn directly onto another, often creating elaborate designs. This type of quilting allows for more delicate and curved shapes, such as flowers, than would be possible with patchwork alone.
Examples include Hawaiian quilts and Baltimore album quilts.
Other Kinds of Quilts
Beyond cultural origin and method, quilts often also reflect particular purposes and aesthetics. Notable examples include:
Baby, Heirloom, or Memory Quilts
Baby or Heirloom quilts were historically made by mothers for their children. Memory quilts became popular in the mid-1800s and incorporate emotionally significant pieces. They can be made as a memorial to a person or special occasion.
Rag quilts are patchwork-like quilts, made with unusual materials, such as denim or fleece, with intentional fraying.
Medallion quilts can be made with patchwork or appliqué techniques. These quilts have a central motif with one or more borders surrounding that motif.
Art quilts are meant to be used as art and often use nontraditional materials, including paint and metal. These are meant to be completely unique artistic expressions, and you’re more likely to hang them on your wall than to use an art quilt as a blanket.
Modern quilts represent a relatively new aesthetic movement in quilting, inspired through digital communities. These quilts incorporate modern design elements, such as minimalism, bold colors, and improvisational piecing.