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A quilt consists of two layers of fabricthe quilt top and the backingwith a third layer of soft insulating material between them, called the batting. Hand or machine stitching holds the three layers together. A quilt can be "whole cloth" (which means the top is one piece of material) but the more colorful and popular forms are patchwork and appliqué.

In patchwork, small patches are sewn together to form larger patterns, while in appliqué the motifs are stitched onto a background fabric. Patchwork quilts are more likely to be arrangements of geometric figures, such as squares and triangles. Appliqué is more frequently used for freeform or representational designs. In either style, the quiltmaker first completes the top by piecing, then quilts together the sandwich of two layers of fabric with batting in between by stitching through all three layers.

Quilts were made even in the earliest civilizationsfor example, in ancient Egypt and Central America. In Europe, the Crusaders brought the idea back from the Holy Land around the twelfth century. However, it was in America that the patchwork quilt blossomed into a distinctive and ubiquitous folk art form.

On the frontier, fabric was a valuable commodity, and quilts were a practical way to use leftover scraps and worn-out clothing. Pioneer women soon discovered the artistic possibilities of quiltmaking, and it became one of the few outlets for creativity and beauty in a difficult life. Quilts also became a valuable cultural record. To those who often did not have access to written media, quilts were a way of chronicling important life events: births, marriages, or even something so humble as a treasured friendship.

Over the generations, the practical importance of quilts diminished. Today, anyone can go to the store and buy a factory-made comforter. But over the last 30 years quilting has enjoyed a tremendous renaissance as a hobby and as a form of artistic and social expression. Fabrics and tools are now available that would have astounded previous generations of stitchers.

Patchwork Mathematics

Many traditional quilt designs are mathematically based, even if their inventors had no formal training in mathematics. A common geometric motif is the square. In the nineteenth century, many girls' first sewing project was a "nine-patch," a simple arrangement of nine squares in a grid. Another common figure is the isosceles right triangle, obtained by cutting a square along the diagonal. Hundreds of traditional blocks consist of these figures, arranged in different sizes and orientations to form stars, animals, buildings, or whatever the quilter's imagination suggested.

A traditional full-sized quilt is often composed of many copies of one basic block. Sometimes two blocks are alternated in checkerboard fashion, as shown in Figure 1. In both quilts, the individual blocks are difficult to discern once they have been incorporated into the completed quilt.

Quilters have learned that the skillful use of contrasting fabrics can lead the eye to see larger "secondary patterns," camouflaging the underlying grid. The traditional pattern called Jacob's Ladder illustrates this technique. As Figure 1 shows, the quilter can use the same geometric pattern yet can make the quilt look completely different by varying the colors. In the quilt on the left, the dominant color creates an illusion of two rectangles with broad borders, positioned diagonally across the quilt and intersecting one another at right angles. In the quilt on the right, the rectangles are barely visible because the color is muted. Instead, the dominant feature on the right is the series of long gray ladders ascending diagonally across the quilt.

Circular symmetry is another common geometric theme. Many quilts, instead of using a repeated pattern of square blocks, feature an elaborate

symmetric "medallion" in the center, such as an 8-pointed Lone Star or a 16-pointed Mariner's Compass. The quilt shown on the cover of this encyclopedia shows an 8-pointed star.

Measurements and Tools. In order to make the pieces of a quilt fit together correctly, quilters depend on precise measurements. If the diagonal lines in Jacob's Ladder were off by even a quarter inch, the sense of continuity from one block to the next would be ruined. The finished quilt can also develop unsightly ripples or bulges if the patches are not measured and cut with accuracy.

A little mathematics comes in handy, too. Because it is impossible to sew two patches together edge-to-edge, quilters cut out each patch a little larger than it will appear in the final quilt. To make a 1-inch square, quilters know they need to cut out a 1½ inch square, adding in a ¼-inch seam allowance (a standard amount) on each side. But it is trickier to figure out the correct cutting size for an isosceles right triangle. Adding ½ inch to the length of the short side is not enough, because this leaves no seam allowance on the long side, as shown in the figure below. The extra length needed, inches, can be computed from the Pythagorean Theorem, making a total of inches to add to the short sides of the triangle. Most quilters know the "rule of thumb," even if they do not know that they owe it to Pythagoras.

Modern quilters have access to an array of specialized tools for design and execution. The rotary cutter, a device somewhat like a pizza slicer, can cut more swiftly and accurately than scissors. When used with special see-through rulers that have grids and oblique angles marked on them, the

rotary cutter also allows quilters to skip the tedious step of marking fabric with a pencil. Other measuring devices associated with mathematics include protractors, compasses, and both rectilinear and isometric (triangular) graph paper. In recent years, some quilt designers have begun to use computer programs to design, preview, and calculate yardage.

Mathematics in Design. In addition to using mathematics as a tool, a few quilters have begun to use mathematics as their inspiration. In Caryl Bryer Fallert's Fibonacci Series #3, the long rectangles have side lengths that form a Fibonacci progression: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and so on. (See Figure 2.) Although not shown here, Jane LeValley Kerns's prizewinning Fractal ingeniously ties together the mathematical concept of a fractal (in this case, a cube made of smaller cubes made of smaller cubes) with a well-known optical illusion called the Necker cube. Other quilts with mathematical themes have been based on space-filling curves, logarithmic spirals, and nonperiodic tessellations . The mathematical motifs provide an inherent sense of rhythm and balance that partners well with the color and tactile satisfaction of the quilting medium.

see also Fractals; Fibonacci, Leonardo Pisano; Geometry, Tools of; Patterns; Pythagoras; Tessellations; Transformations.

Dana Mackenzie


Seward, Linda. Successful Quilting: A Step-by-Step Guide to Mastering the Techniques of Piecing, Appliqué and Quilting. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1987.

Venters, Diana, and Elaine Krajenke Ellison. Mathematical QuiltsNo Sewing Required! Emeryville, CA: Key Curriculum Press, 1999.

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quilting, form of needlework, almost always created by women, most of them anonymous, in which two layers of fabric on either side of an interlining (batting) are sewn together, usually with a pattern of back or running (quilting) stitches that hold the layers together. This method of securing warmth in covering and clothing has been practiced for centuries in N Asia and Europe. Quilting has been a feature of embroidery in the form of raised work. It was a distinctive type of needlework in pioneer American homes, at first mainly utilitarian, later more ornamental. Quilts were usually of the pieced, or patchwork, type until c.1750, when the appliquéd, or laid-on, quilt and the monotone quilt decorated by trapunto (padding or cording) became popular. A fad for quilted petticoats for women and coattails for men was at its height from 1688 to 1714. About 1830 appliquéd box quilts, made with tops of individually pieced, generally geometric patterns, became dominant.

While some 18th-cent. examples are extant, the American quilt as art and craft is largely a 19th-century phenomenon. Dozens of traditional patchwork patterns have evolved, such as Sunburst, Sawtooth, Log Cabin, Schoolhouse, and Bear's Paw, and have continued in use well into the 20th cent. The quilts of certain American groups are especially compelling works of art. Among the most notable of these were made by the Amish (particularly c.1870–1935) who created utilitarian quilts with geometric designs in areas of unpatterned color—deep, vibrant, and close-toned—now much sought after by collectors. The Victorian period marked the popularity of the crazy quilt, in which asymmetrical designs were made of patches of various textiles in a multiplicity of sizes and shapes often connected by decorative stitching.

Part of the American folk art tradition, quilting is still practiced by Southern mountainfolk, the Pennsylvania Dutch, and other rural dwellers and has been revived as ornamental needlework. Traditional African-American quilts have been particularly praised for their bold, asymmetrical designs and brilliant colors, often complemented by the use of tied knots. Of particular interest are quilts (1930s–present) created by the women of Gee's Bend, an historically black Alabama community—jazzy, colorful works in irregular geometric patterns of remarkable abstract power that have been widely exhibited, e.g., at the Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC (2002). The quilt has also been used as a form of textile art, as in the work of Faith Ringgold, who blends African-American tradition with contemporary art. Quilting also has a utilitarian function in modern life with machine-quilted materials used for wearing apparel and in interior decoration, particularly for bed and couch covers.

See P. Cooper and N. B. Buferd, The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art (1978); M. Walker, The Complete Guide to Quiltmaking (1986); C. L. Mosey, Contemporary Quilts from Traditional Patterns (1988); C. Benberry, Always There: The African-American Presence in American Quilts (1992).

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QUILTING. A quilt is made by sewing two pieces of cloth together with a padding in between the two layers held in place by stitching that creates a design. The first quilts emerged in ancient Egypt, and the decorative art form traveled to Asia and later to Europe during the Crusades (c. 1100–1300). By 1300, quilting had spread to Italy, where women sewed bed quilts, and from there a long tradition of quilt making developed throughout Europe. Female European immigrants brought their quilting skills to the United States where the art form flourished during the colonial era. American women often created patchwork quilts made from scraps of fabric. Women also participated in quilting bees in which they worked together in groups to sew quilts. African American women began quilting as slaves with scraps from their masters and continued the art form after their emancipation. As Americans migrated west during the nineteenth century, women's quilting patterns reflected their new experiences and carried such names as wagon wheel, log cabin, and North Star. Picture quilts also emerged during this time with designs that looked like pictures sewn onto quilts. Women sewed "friendship" quilts to create an album for special events like weddings and births. The AIDS Memorial Quilt originated in 1987 as a friendship quilt to remember those who died from AIDS. Each panel of the quilt includes the name and date of death of a person who died from AIDS.


Cooper, Patricia, and Norma Bradley Buferd. The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1993.

Orlofsky, Patsy, and Myron Orlofsky. Quilts in America. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.

Jane E.Dabel

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"Quilting." Dictionary of American History. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

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