The Patchless Regency

Of course, clothing and household linens were commonly patched during the years of the Regency, just as they have been for centuries and still are today, in many parts of the world. But quilts were not, despite their continued inclusion by Regency authors in their novels. This is to say, patchwork quilts such as those we know today, were extremely rare in early nineteenth century England. And yet nearly every bed in a respectable Regency home was covered with a quilt.

No, I am not being contrary. This is not as confusing as it seems, once one understands exactly what a quilt really is and how it was used during the Regency.

First and foremost, it is very important to understand that the true definition of quilting is not the piecing together of many small pieces of different-colored cloth. That activity is correctly referred to as piecework. Quilting is the process of stitching or tying together two layers of cloth, between which is sandwiched a layer of a thicker, softer material, such a wool batting or down. A quilt is the finished product which results from this process.

In fact, the word "quilt" comes from the Latin word culcita, which is a mattress that has been thickly padded and tied through all the layers. From the middle ages well into the seventeenth century, quilts were more commonly made to lie upon than under. But gradually, the construction of mattresses evolved to create a much thicker, more sturdy supporting cushion for the body and the quilt was promoted to a bed-covering.

Through the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth century in England, this quilted bed covering was also called a counterpane. The word "counterpane" is a corruption of the French contre-pointe, from the Latin culcita puncta, meaning a punctured quilt. These counterpanes were exactly that, and are what would today be called whole-cloth quilts. That is, they were made of two layers of cloth between which would be sandwiched a thicker, softer layer such as wool batting. The finest counterpanes would be made of two layers of silk with a down filling. In other instances, silk or linen was used for the top, and wool or linen was used for the back. Counterpanes made for grand beds in the chambers of great houses were often extremely elegant and elaborate. The top might be embroidered, or decorated with a needlework technique called broderie perse, in which motifs cut from one piece of cloth would be appliqued onto the quilt top. The use of the broderie perse technique became very popular in England in the late eighteenth century, when more printed cotton cloth from India became available. Once the counterpane top was decorated, it would be sandwiched with the filling and the backing, and in most cases a running stitch was used to quilt the three layers together. This quilting served the dual purpose of holding the batting layer in place so that it would not shift during use, and of adding texture to the surface of the counterpane.

In less affluent households, a counterpane might be made without any embroidery or applique at all. The decoration was completely the result of the quilting stitches. In this technique, a design would be drawn on the counterpane top, usually with chalk or pencil, the quilt "sandwich" of top, filling and backing would be made, and then the quilting stitches would all be done over the design which had been drawn on the top. The finished quilted counterpane might be more subtle in embellishment than an embroidered or appliqued counterpane, but in the hands of a skillful and creative quilter, it could be every bit as lovely.

In the late eighteenth century, there were some small patchwork, or piecework items occasionally being made in the Colonies. Most common of these were the pockets ladies wore under their skirts. But even in America, bed-size piecework quilts were not often made. In fact, such patchwork bed quilts cannot be dated much before the 1840s. In England, patchwork quilts appeared even later, well into the 1880s. Cotton, the textile of choice for most modern-day quilters, was only beginning to become available in Regency England. It was expensive, but versatile and comfortable, and was most commonly used in the making of clothing. Even the wealthiest needlewomen would balk at the cost of making bed-coverings from cotton in the Regency. There was also the aesthetic consideration that many affluent women would consider patchwork too humble and unsophisticated for use in their homes. Nor would poor women have the time to cut out all those little bits, only to then have to sew them back together, especially in the days before the sewing machine. Even the lady of a comfortable country house, with few aristocratic acquaintances and more time to ply her needle, would not choose to spend her time in such a pursuit.

There are perhaps less than half a dozen patchwork quilts in England which can be dated before the mid-nineteenth century, and at least half of those date from before the decade of the Regency. There are very few references in letters, diaries or journals to bed-coverings made of patchwork during the years just before or during the Regency. The evidence we have from both contemporary artifacts and documents makes it clear that quilts in Regency England were almost always made of whole-cloth and not patchwork. As a quilter myself, I wish that the people who lived during the Regency might have had the pleasure of making and sleeping under these comforting textile creations, but they did not. So, yet another plea to authors of Regency novels. Even if you have a quilt you adore, or are an avid quilter, please do not allow your quilts of the patchwork variety to stray into your novels. They are simply not appropriate to that time. If you have a special quilt which really must be part of a story you are telling, set your story later in the nineteenth century when patchwork quilts were actually made and appreciated.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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4 Responses to The Patchless Regency

  1. Sarah Waldock says:

    I am wondering then, did the use of random patchwork die out? using up small ends by applying them to old blankets for example was an earlier skill, Medieval certainly;[the art of applique was brought back from the crusades] and Anne Hathaway’s later, Tudor, random quilt may be seen, mostly made of long strips. A great way to give a new lease of life to a thin blanket with the scraps left over after dressmaking that were too small for anything else to protect the top layer of what would then be bonded with wadding and a lower layer. Incidentally the addition of the extra layer of appliqued scraps herringboned onto a backing does make a very real difference to trapping heat even without the addition of wadding and a second layer. It makes great dressing gowns…..

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      The use of random patchwork never really died out, it was just suffering under the stigma of being considered an activity of the poor for most of the nineteenth century. And then, near the end of the nineteenth century, the crazy quilt craze took off. Then women of all income levels were stitching bits of this and that to a foundation cloth and covering the whole thing with embroidery. And it was then art!

      When I was growing up, I patched many garments and household linens, as we could not afford to replace things with only small tears or holes. But I do not know anyone who does that today. And there were people at the time who looked down on us for patching things.

      I do not know if this was done with quilts in the UK, but there are a few examples in the US of quilts in which the middle layer is not batting, but newspapers. The only ones I have seen are whole-cloth quilts which date from the late eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century. They have clearly been used, but since the old newspapers which were sandwiched inside were made of 100% rag paper, they held up well over time and provided a bit of extra warmth at lower cost.

      Regards,

      Kat

  2. I just discovered a patchwork quilt made by Jane Austen, Cassandra and their mother, or rather a patchwork counterpane, and digging around I find that the use of mosaic pieced patchwork of the hexagon type dates to the 18th century though I haven’t been able to access the scholarly papers of Bridget Long about the early silk counterpane and the late 18th century rise of the art with cheaper cotton and linen. The Austen counterpane, mentioned in an 1811 letter from JA to Cassandra, is a form of medallion style utilising diamonds of various sizes as its basis with trapezoids to make a trellis between the main ground surrounding a large chintz central motif. The edge is of tiny diamonds and each side is a perfect mirror image of the other. It’s on display at Chawton. I have to say, we tend here to refer to them as patchwork quilts whether they are quilted or merely backed – a laxity of the language in the old country! I had always thought that the quilt mentioned in Malcolm Saville’s children’s mystery ‘not scarlet but gold’ was a mistake on the part of a mere man as the papers had been left in, I had not realised that paper was often left in the quilt, re-reading it recently I was reminded of your post.
    By the way, I still patch things.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      The quilt sounds lovely! The central chintz piece sounds like it is broderie perse, which had become quite popular at that time. Obviously, Jane was keeping up with fashions in quilting.

      Were you able to determine if the diamond and trapezoid shapes were stitched together, or were they appliqued side by side to a base cloth? That was very common, in fact, it still is today, to make shapes that are difficult to work lie smoothly close together. They look like patchwork, but in actual fact, they are not stitched to one another, just to the base cloth.

      I still patch things, too. Though only where it won’t show, or the garment gets demoted to something to wear around the house. But I see no reason to buy something new if I can fix what I have and get more use out of it. Soooo unfashionable! 😉

      Regards,
      Kat

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