Patchwork has been viewed in different ways over history. Originally the province of moneyed ladies of leisure, the longest-surviving example of a patchwork quilt dates back to 1718 and was made up of expensive silk patches. As textile manufacturing techniques improved throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, cotton was used as a great alternative to this costly material. The invention of the first synthetic dye in the middle of the century (1856) gave women sewing patchwork a greater palette of colours to choose from.
At around the same time, its popularity rose among working-class women who enjoyed the fact that something new could be made out of otherwise useless scraps of material. The 19th-century prison reformer, Elizabeth Fry, is well-known for teaching female convicts to make patchwork quilts both as a way to pass their time and also as an opportunity for quiet contemplation.
Often patchwork quilts of the era had scenes or quotes from the scriptures, commemorated national events or were made in celebration of special occasions (such as an engagement or birth). Many of the patchwork quilting techniques were specific to a certain region such as the rise of log cabin patchwork in the States or the embroidered leaf motifs of Wales.
The first half of the 20th century saw a decline in the popularity of patchwork. Not only were women increasingly employed outside the home and so didn’t have time for traditional skills,but mass production and new manmade materials meant quilts were now more affordable.
Patchwork didn’t come back into fashion again until the 1960s when its value was re-examined. Its role as a form of female self-expression – especially when individual touches of embroidery were taken into account – reflected the concerns of the growing feminist movement.
Later artists like Michelle Worker and Tracey Emin have both used patchwork in their artworks using applique as a type of collage. Although Emin’s first patchwork pieces of art concentrated on the personal with echoes from her own life, later works (such as ‘Hate and Power Can be a Terrible Thing’, 2004) are much more explicitly political. The anger and outrageousness of the comments are in stark opposition to what patchwork is traditionally supposed to represent: woman as a nurturer.
This century, patchwork is back in fashion once again but for very different reasons. The fact that this craft uses old unwanted fabric remnants (or upcycling) fits in with the philosophy of the ecological movement and those whose environmental consciousness has been raised. Another benefit is that for those struggling on a family budget, everything about money can be highly stressful. However, the materials and equipment to make patchwork are easily affordable.
Making patchwork is the ideal business opportunity for a home worker. It is something which is in great demand, it doesn’t require you to be a skilled sewer (as embroidery does) and many products can be made using the same techniques including cushion covers, tea cosies and throws.