McElhinney family, date unknown. More information.

Old Irish patchwork quilts and traditions

Traditionally, Irish patchwork quilts consisted of two layers, the top and the backing, quilted together with wave or chevron patterns. The very early patchwork quilts made in England, and those originally introduced in Ireland, also had wave or chevron patterns holding two layers together. It is often commented upon that the Irish did not do interesting quilting. The significance of this is that the tradition never changed – but was simply handed down from one generation to the next. The Irish lived in villages and small communities, with little opportunity for travel, little money and no chance of leaving the island except for emigration. These factors helped to keep the tradition as it was. During the 18th Century, patchwork and quilting were introduced to Ireland by the English gentry. These ladies of high society, living on their Irish country estates, were known to have taught many needlework skills, including patchwork and quilting, to those working in service. In time this craft spread to the surrounding cottages, villages and towns. Ireland’s tradition of patchwork and quilting thrived and grew rapidly out of thrift and necessity.

In later years when sewing machines became available, patchworks were often found to be hand pieced with machine quilting on top. As very few owned a machine, it was prestigious to show off machine stitching, pretending there was a machine hidden in the cupboard. To others it was labour saving for the busy mothers and hastened the completion of the quilt. These quilts were taken to dressmakers or a local clothes factory to be machine quilted. Early Irish quilts sometimes had criss-cross hand stitching in a one-inch grid across them. On the introduction of the sewing machine, this criss-cross was common on the tops as though it was still being copied from the early quilts.

In mountainous, bleak and cold damp areas of Ireland, an old worn blanket or sheet or red flannel would be sandwiched between the two layers to provide extra weight for warmth. These patchwork quilts looked very rough and primitive made up from hand woven fabrics, tweeds and old suiting materials, possibly from suits belonging to a male member of the family who had passed away. The layers in these quilts were usually tie-quilted with sheep’s wool. These heavier patchworks were often made into log cabin patterns. Log cabin was thought to have originated in the Celtic countries. It was a common pattern in Ireland and in the Isle of Man where Irish farming families often settled.

Many houses kept rag-bags for making patchworks. A piece of fabric never hit the ground – it went straight into the rag-bag along with worn out clothing. In the case of families who were too poor to use their clothes for patchwork, they would acquire scraps from dressmakers, travellers or shop samples and factory cut-offs. There were a number of shirt factories in Northern Ireland, especially in Belfast and Londonderry. Off-cuts were given to workers for making patchworks and as a result patchworks can often be found with a wonderful selection of striped fabrics. Some linen merchants had a day in the week when they sold off pieces of linen to their workers for the purpose of making patchwork. These linen pieces were usually made into frame quilts, which were very fashionable in Ireland – yet another example of the early quilt tradition being repeated. The linen pieces were also made into squares, stripes and rectangles to form a patchwork, these being easier methods for handling and stitching linen. Turkey red and white patchwork quilts featured very strongly in Ulster, looking cheerful and much more presentable than an army blanket covering the bed – a common practice. The red and white patchwork was often referred to as the ‘best quilt’ and would have been kept carefully and brought out only when visitors came to the house or the doctor was visiting an ill patient. Since not every home had a ‘best quilt’, when the need arose, neighbours would lend one another a patchwork quilt to help create a good impression. In the case of a family not having a patchwork or even a blanket, coats were used. Old people from large families recount the disadvantages of using coats as they were not large enough to cover the occupants of the bed. Sleeves and pockets were pulled out in the effort to keep covered and warm. To these families to have a patchwork made from recycled material was a step up in the world, from possessing almost nothing.

Flour bags were saved, washed and bleached to use as a back to a patchwork. Four flour bags joined together covered the back of a patchwork. Other types of patchwork made were mosaic and crazy patchwork. Appliqué was also a very popular technique in Ireland with turkey red shapes along with other colours (sometimes green) sewn onto a white sheet creating many interesting quilts and coverlets. These patterns were very similar to patterns we see in American quilts. The Irish took their traditions with them when they emigrated and over the years the Irish American connection was kept alive with patchwork quilt patterns being exchanged between the two countries.

This article first appeared in Fabrications Magazine, February/March 2001. Republished with kind permission. Quiltin Parties – the Irish drop their g’s – were a big social occasion in Ireland. Starting with plenty of work preparing food, griddle bread, soda farls and potato bread and the provision of some beverage. The quiltin took place in a variety of places – farms, church halls and even in barns – anywhere where a number of people could congregate and make merry. Younger children were usually at hand to thread needles for those ladies with poor eyesight. If a young girl from the area was planning to get married, this was a special event for all the relatives and neighbours. So a quiltin party was organised to provide a quilt for her bottom drawer (the drawer at the bottom of the family chest or cupboard where the bride collected items for her forthcoming marriage). The menfolk came to the quiltin party, staying in the background, some drinking and smoking clay pipies, watching the ladies quiltin whilst listening to story telling, singing and music. Someone played a fiddle or an accordian to accompany the songs at the end of the quiltin when the frame was put away and a ceilidhe and a dance took place. These activities helped to fill the long cold winter evenings, especially in the country.

© Fabrications Magazine