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Quilts: It’s a long journey all the way from the cotton plant

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Fabric has always attracted me. My mother was a home sewer, and when I would accompany her to a fabric store to pick out new material for our school clothes, I would wander down the aisles as she made her choices. For me, the stores were a wonderland of colors and patterns.

Over the years, I have done some garment sewing. But quilting is a venue that invites both enchantment and creativity.

Quilting enjoyed a renaissance about 20 years ago, with quilting stores popping up everywhere. The advantage of shopping at a store devoted solely to quilting is that the fabrics are assembled by color families, which simplifies enormously the process of choosing the right fabric for the right composition. Alas, due to rising costs of rents and fabric, many of those stores have disappeared, along with their knowledgeable staff.

Quilts are records of women’s lives and family histories as well as serving as records about development of textiles and fashion. There are several museums scattered around the country devoted solely to quilts. The International Quilt Study Center & Museum, part of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s campus, has the largest publicly held quilt collection, with quilts dating from the early 1700s. It is housed within the Department of Textiles, Merchandising & Fashion Design.

Our word “quilt” comes indirectly from the Latin culcita meaning a stuffed item such as a cushion. Culcita became cuilte in French, and then moved into English as “quilt.”

Quilting, in its most basic definition, is the creation of a fabric sandwich enclosing a filling of padding, all of which are permanently attached to each other by stitching. There is scattered archeological evidence of quilting as a clothing technique from Egypt (3400 B.C.).

The Crusaders brought the notion of quilted clothing back to Europe in the late 11th century. Those garments were fashioned to be worn under armor for padded comfort.

The earliest bed quilt, known as the Tristan Quilt — currently housed in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London — comes from Sicily, and was sewn in the late 1300s.

That quilt, made from two sheets of linen (122-by-106 inches) stuffed with wool padding, is called a “wholequilt.”  The quilt top and bottom are each a single uncut piece of fabric decorated solely by the quilting stitches. In this case, there are numerous scenes from the Legend of Tristan and Isolde, which story may prefigure the Arthurian romance of Lancelot and Guinevere. The scenes are captioned in the Sicilian language still spoken in Sicily, its satellite islands and some southern areas at the tip of the Italian peninsula.

Sicilian is now considered a UNESCO minority language, and is part of the Far Southern Italian language group.

The other two methods of quilt construction are appliqué and pieced. Appliqué is the process of using a finished design such as a flower from another piece of fabric, cutting it out, and sewing it down with tiny stitches to the fabric intended as the top of the quilt. Piecing is done by sewing smaller pieces of colored fabric together to create a new design, frequently in a block.

The finished design, created by sewing the blocks together, will be used as the top fabric in the quilt sandwich.

Any fabric can be used to create a quilt. The fad for crazy quilting, which used snippets of colorful expensive fabrics such as velvets and satins embellished with elaborate embroidery stitches, attests to that. However, pure cotton is now generally the material of choice.

The cotton plant (genus Gossypium from the Greek gossypion) is a member of the malvaceae family, which also includes hollyhocks (alceae) and hibiscus. There are four varieties of Gossypium that were independently domesticated, and each was an important commodity in different eras.

G. hirsutum — also known as Mexican or upland cotton — is native to Central and South America, and presently accounts for 90 percent of world production.

G. barbadense — also known as extra-long staple cotton — is native to South America and the West Indies. G. arboretum is native to India and Pakistan, while G. herbaceum — Levant cotton — is native to the semi-arid regions of sub-Saharan Africa and Arabia.

The important hair-like fibers of the cotton are attached to the seeds developing inside the cotton boll. The seeds constitute about 55 percent of the harvested weight, the fiber about 35 percent, and debris such as dirt and leaves the remaining 10 percent.

The length of these fibers establishes their quality, longer fibers being the most desirous. The G. barbadense fibers are the longest at between 1 and 2.5 inches. Next is G. hirsutum, the fibers of which are between 0.5 and 1.3 inches, which constitute 95 percent of American output.

The other two species — with fiber lengths of between a half and full inch — play no role anymore in international commerce.

More to come!

Have a thought or comment for Sura Jeselsohn? Email her at greenscenesura@gmail.com.

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