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Early American Pieced Quilts
Although both patchwork and pieced quilts are prized today for their designs and fine needlework, they were originally a product of spare time and thrift. The earliest quilts in America were probably of wool and done in that oldest of designs, the "crazy" pattern, with warmth rather than beauty the object.
Wool quilts with pieced tops in the simplest of block patterns were made all through the colonial days and until late in the nineteenth century. Some of them had artistic merit. I know of one made in the 1850's with squares of challis in quaint floral and striped patterns which now has the mellow charm of an antique prayer rug. Lined with lamb's wool and still in perfect condition, it has beauty as well as warmth.
The pieced quilt was a result of the frugal habit of using left-overs. It is reminiscent of an era when women's and children's clothes were made at home, either by a clever member of the family or by the local seamstress who appeared as regularly as spring and fall house-cleaning, reigned in an upper room for a week and then departed, leaving an array of feminine raiment and an assortment of cloth scraps.
These by-products were sorted, tied in little bundles, and put into a piece bag. Sizable pieces of calico, India print, gingham, or other colorful cottons were for the handsome patchwork or applique type of quilt; smaller odds and ends were earmarked for the pieced blocks of the everyday quilts.
Since pieced blocks are always divisions of either a square or a circle, many of the patterns commonly used by the quilt-maker of yesterday and today are as old as the science of mathematics. For the cotton pieced quilt of elaborate design, patterns ranged from sunburst, star, and log cabin to simple geometric ones.
The simple Squares quilt technique was often used for a little girl's first lessons in sewing a fine seam. Tiny over-and-over stitches with sixteen squares to a block might take much or little time. From this beginning, the pupil would presumably progress to more intricate designs until she was promoted to the aristocratic quilt of patchwork. Finally, she became sufficiently advanced in skill to take part in the actual quilting.
The latter called for a party, and as not over eight women could work on a quilt at the same time, a smart hostess waited until she had two or three quilts ready and so paid off a good number of social obligations.