There is no clear record of when papers came to be used in patchwork, however we do have the earliest known work still bearing its original paper templates; the 1718 Coverlet which is the oldest dated British patchwork coverlet, belonging to The Quilters’ Guild.
The mosaic style is patchwork in its truest form, as it is used to construct the whole quilt. Hexagon quilts usually spring to mind, largely due to it being the most popular and predominantly used shape throughout the history of the craft. The hexagon pattern or ‘honeycomb quilt’ originated in England from the 18th century and became a popular design in both Europe and America as quilting ideas spread from thrifty English and Dutch colonists.
The 1718 Silk Coverlet. Owned by the Quilter's Guild of the British Isles.
English Hexagon Rosette Quilt by Hannah Sealy, approx 1890. Owned by the Quilter's Guild of the British Isles.
Detail from an antique soliders quilt. Tiny whip-stitches indicate the English Paper Pecing method. Owned by the Quilter's Guild of the British Isles.
It is thought that the first works made in this manner were from the upper-class, given that paper was an expensive commodity and nearly all 19th century quilts made with paper templates were made of reused private letters which poorer people did not receive, or in a lesser quantity than required. Household accounts, trade advertisements, sales bills, date stamps and newspaper pieces all help towards providing clues to the date and locality of the quilt made.
The most recognisable of all patterns would be the Rosette, made from seven hexagons – one in the centre and six surrounding which are usually of one colour. Enlarging the rosette by adding another row of another colour makes a double rosette, one more makes the treble rosette.
Traditional patchwork as a leisure pursuit declined in popularity during the first and second world wars, whilst emphasis was put on more essential items to sew coupled with the scarcity of available materials. A resurgence of crafts and interest in handmade items came about in the 1970s, the ‘craft renaissance’, which promptly put traditional patchwork – and hexagons notably, back in popularity.
Today, in the era of smartphones, social media and mass-production we see more people returning to traditional crafts and appreciation for time-honoured techniques like English paper piecing, and the ‘EPP’ phrase now firmly in the vocabulary of sewing terms. Along with high demand for antique quilts and traditional English paper pieced quilts fetching high prices at auction sales.
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