— by Christian de Holacombe, Guild Chronicler
Quilting is one of those arts whose origins are lost in time.
It seems to have been invented independently at several times
and places. And the practical probably came before the beautiful:
stitching two layers of cloth together with padding in between
is an effective way of making a sturdy fabric that resists punctures,
softens sharp corners and retains body heat.
Modern American culture complicates our discussion of quilting
by using the word “quilt” both to describe the process
of stitching layers together, and to describe a bed covering
that is in fact not always quilted, but has an appliquéd
or pieced design in colored cloth. But combining these decorative
techniques and quilting didn’t become really popular till
the 18th century. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, quilting
— in the sense of sewing layers together — was far
more often done on plain cloth. Such “whole-cloth”
quilting is what we’ll be discussing here.
There are plenty of descriptions and a few surviving examples
of quilted pieces from our period. That medieval quilting was
fairly common is supported, for instance, by many mentions in
inventories of bed furnishings called “quyltes,”
“counter-poyntes,” or “counterpanes,”
including “a bed... of quoiltene and of materasz”
in 1290 (“of quilting and mattress”). More entertaining
is a 1320 poem giving a list of the furnishings for a castle,
including “Foure hondred beddes of selk echon [each one],
Quiltes of gold there upon.”
Probably the oldest surviving example of quilted fabric is
a floor covering from one of the “kurgan” tombs
of the nomadic peoples from Western Asia, a place called Noin
Ula, south of Lake Baikal. (Details of this quilt are below,
and a line drawing can be viewed here.)
It was found on the floor of the tomb, where it had been preserved
||As you can see in
the photo at left, the center of the quilt is filled with
a pattern of large clockwise and counterclockwise spirals,
with smaller spirals between, forming a continuous pattern.
The inner border is a band of geometric shapes, outlined
with cord and quilted to the foundation. The outer borders
(detail below) are quilted in small diamonds, and appliquéd
with small trees and pairs of battling animals filled with
closely spaced lines of additional quilting. This dates
from sometime between the first century BC and the second
|This border is adapted (& simplified) from the
inner border of the Noin Ula quilt. On the original, the
shapes are colored appliqué, the solid lines are
overlaid with couched cord, and several closely spaced lines
of quilting are stitched within each shape.
There is also abundant evidence of quilted medieval clothing,
dating from at least the early 1200s, especially of protective
clothing to be worn under armor. The surviving quilted “pourpoint”
or jacket of Charles de Blois in the Musée Historique
des Tissues in Lyon, France, which dates to the 1360s, is one
example made in this style (though it’s now questioned
whether this particular example was originally quilted).
Other quilted jackets known from period documents, pictures
and a few surviving examples, include the gambeson, haketon
and jack. These were made by specialist “linen armorers”
(separate from the makers of metal armor). King Edward I of
England approved their Guild charter in 1272. (They later became
the Merchant Taylors Guild, which still exists today.)
|An armsman in a quilted “jack,”
original and as re-drawn by Averil Colby from Memling’s
Chasse of St. Ursula, 15thc.
||A 16th-century arming doublet of quilted leather from
Quilted caps and linings were worn inside metal helmets, under
armor and inside gloves. A quilted “jack” could
also be protection for men who couldn’t afford metal armor,
and these could be surprisingly tough: rioters during Wat Tyler’s
rebellion (1381) trying to destroy a jack belonging to the Duke
of Lancaster had to resort to swords and axes to hack it in
The few quilted garments that survive from Europe all seem
to be quilted in plain straight lines, squares or diamond shapes.
This seems to be generally true for Europe: decorative quilting
is more or less confined to furnishings such as bed covers and
perhaps wall hangings. Quilted clothing seems to have been more
Another early example, which may be an exception to this, is
a quilted slipper that was discarded on the Silk Road sometime
in the 8th century. It is quilted in a pattern of overlapping
quarter-circle “fans,” but it seems to have been
pieced together from scraps of already-quilted fabric (perhaps
|The quilted slipper was found in the rubbish
dump of a fort occupied by a Tibetan garrison in the Taklamakan
Desert. The unfinished edges suggest it may have been assembled
from scraps of a previously quilted object. Copyright British
Museum; MAS 495.
Information on early quilted pieces is often hard to find,
or to extract from manuscript sources. Quilting seems to have
been taken so much for granted that it was rarely described
in detail. For instance, decorative quilting is seldom mentioned.
Was it very rare or was it common? We have no way of knowing.
In the same way, we can’t be sure if the bedcoverings
described as “quyltes” or “counterpanes”
were always quilted, even though that’s the origin of
the words: “quilt” from the Latin culcita, which
seems to mean “stuffed,” and “counter-pane”
from the French contre-poinct, literally “counter-stitching,”
referring to stitching back and forth through layers. A third
complication is that apparently the word “quilted”
can also simply mean “stuffed,” like a cushion.
We know that King Henry VIII had a favorite “quilted”
brocade cushion, but we don’t know whether this was merely
a stuffed cushion or whether it was a cushion with a quilted
By the 16th century, we have a lot more records to look at;
and we know that Katherine Howard, for instance, was given 23
bed quilts of “sarcenett” (a light-weight silk).
We also know that quilted nightcaps were worn, because Sir Thomas
Elyot’s book The Castel of Health (1541) recommends against
them as being too warm! The Hapsburg emperor Charles V also
took 16 quilted silken nightshirts with him when he retired
to Spain in 1556.
The nature of quilting is dictated somewhat by the materials
used. Linen, especially plain tabby cloth, and the more luxurious
silk seem to have been the most common outer fabrics.
the most famous examples of medieval European quilts are three
pictorial quilts of linen, called the “Tristan quilts”
(at right; see larger image here),
made around 1400 in Sicily. The front is linen, the back is
a slightly coarser linen, and it is quilted with light and dark
natural shades of linen thread. These quilts are often referred
to as “stuffed quilting” or “trapunto”:
the design motifs are stuffed individually with cotton, and
the background is simply the two layers of linen, quilted together
but with no stuffing between them.
Cotton as the stuffing of choice seems to be quite common.
This is a bit surprising at first, since cotton cloth and cotton
yarn did not become really common in Europe until well after
1600 — but cotton batting was present much earlier. A
ward-robe account from the reign of King John (1212) mentions
paying 16 pence for a pound of cotton for the filling of a haketon
for His Majesty.
Cotton is harder to quilt through than wool, and it does not
have the same tendency to “bounce back” when compressed.
For armor padding, this is actually an advantage: compressed
cotton is tough and doesn’t move easily, so quilting stuffed
with cotton is harder for weapons to pierce, even if it’s
not reinforced (as it sometimes is) with metal or horn plates
inserted into the compartments of the quilting..
Cotton’s lack of resilience is also an advantage if decorative
quilting is to be “stuffed” with additional bits
of padding to raise it from the background, as in the Tristan
quilts. I discovered this for myself the first time I tried
to stitch a stuffed motif from the Tristan quilt’s borders.
When I tried using carded wool, it was easy to stuff it into
the corners of the motif, but it would spring back before I
had a chance to stitch the motif closed. Cotton stays where
you put it, making the job much easier.
To its disadvantage, however, once a motif has been stuffed
with cotton, it’s difficult to stitch through it to add
any decorative details, as is done with the faces, for example,
on the Tristan quilt. Quilting through cotton almost always
requires a thimble, even if you don’t use one for other
stitching, and to stitch through a firmly stuffed area, I find
I often need to pull the needle through with pliers.
Cotton also needs to be quilted fairly closely, at least every
inch or so, if you want it to remain in place and not slip or
bunch up. This is particularly true if the quilted object is
going to be washed frequently. This is different from modern
polyester batting, which can often be simply tied or tacked
in place here and there. Polyester batting also does not reproduce
the “look” of period quilting very well, because
it tends to be both springier and thicker, creating a puffier
look. (Modern quilters, of course, often prefer this look.)
Polyester also may not “breathe” well if used for
clothing, since it doesn’t absorb moisture very well.
On the other hand, both polyester and wool retain some warmth
when wet, and they also dry more quickly than cotton.
Wool is used as stuffing in some medieval pieces, but mostly
where something is quilted specifically for warmth. It’s
much easier to quilt through, but has to be washed very carefully
to prevent shrinkage.
|People who haven’t tried quilting are
often intimidated by the idea that it requires some mysterious
“quilting stitch.” In actual fact, it’s
quite easy. For simple or utilitarian quilting, the “quilting
stitch” is simply an ordinary running stitch, taken
through all the layers at once.
|In period, decorative or fine quilting was
more often done using the equally ordinary backstitch, which
creates a continuous outline on the surface of the fabric,
making the design stand out more clearly. Although slower,
this does make a significant difference in how the finished
The ideal is to make your quilting stitches even, straight,
and small. Stitches don’t have to be tiny — 1 /8
inch is a good length; it’s hard to get them much smaller
unless you use very thin batting and fine needles. “Betweens”
needles are good for quilting because they are short and have
an eye that isn’t larger than the rest of the needle,
so they slip through fabric easily, but any sharp needle you’re
comfortable with is fine.
a good deal of advice out there on how to improve your quilting
stitches; the consensus is that it’s better to try for
evenness first, and your stitches will get smaller with practice.
Everyone’s quilting looks different: I noticed when working
on a major quilting project with a friend that our quilting
stitches were every bit as distinctive as our handwriting: mine
were smaller but tended to wander a bit; hers were a bit larger,
but more even and straighter. In either case, practice makes
The consensus also is that running stitches are straighter
and more even if you run your needle in and out to get several
stitches on your needle before pulling the needle through, as
shown in the illustration of hands (right). Resist
the temptation to do “stab” stitches, plunging the
needle down through the fabric once and pulling it through,
unless you are in a particularly thick or difficult area. For
backstitch, you are taking only one stitch at a time, but you
can still bring the needle down and up through the fabric before
pulling it through.
Many authors try to make distinctions among various types of
quilting, such as “wadded” quilting with a uniform
layer of batting, “trapunto” for quilting with extra
stuffing to create raised motifs, and “corded” quilting
where the design is formed by quilting narrow channels, which
are then filled by running a soft cord through them. In practice,
however, these techniques are often mixed and matched in period
examples. The Tristan quilts have the motifs stuffed with cotton,
while in the background the two layers of fabric are simply
held together by rows of running stitches with no padding at
all. There is a 16th-century German quilt with a design of corded
eight-point stars, each filled with the same kind of running-stitch
background and centered with small animal motifs that are not
stuffed but merely outlined with stitching.
For further reading:
As with many medieval arts, there isn’t yet a single
book that covers medieval quilting in detail. The best book
for historical documentation (and a major source for this article)
is Averil Colby’s Quilting [1972, B.T. Batsford Ltd.,
ISBN 0-7134-5901-8]. It’s out of print, but used copies
are not too hard to find on the Internet.
An interesting piece of news is that Mistress Bess Haddon of
York, Patron of our “sister guild” the Company of
Broderers in Lochac, has been writing her PhD dissertation on
the Tristan embroideries, and will be giving a paper on the
Tristan quilts in England this summer. We’ll certainly
ask her to share!