Traditional Quilts from Around the World
Tour the globe by exploring artisanal craftsmanship in all kinds of patterns from Ralli quilts in Pakistan, Bargello in Italy and Hungary, and Provençal quilting known as boutis.
All over the globe, cultures have developed their own unique ways to sew together layers of fabric, creating a world of traditional styles of quilting. In every corner of the map, people draw on the world around them and their cultural history to repurpose scraps of fabric—whether it be flour sacks or old dresses—into something new, beautiful, and meaningful.
"Quilts remind me of someone else's happy childhood," says Spike Gillespie, the author of Quilts Around the World ($34.99, barnesandnoble.com), as well as many other books, including the timely new Sleeping Bees: Why Doing Nothing Matters. Even for people who didn't grow up with quilts around have a palpable, comforted reaction to them, she says. "It's the original weighted blanket." Beyond the tactile assets, they are aesthetically pleasing and often take on an emotional connection if you know the person who made them. But one of the best things about quilts, Gillespie adds, is their portability: No matter how many times you move or how far way you go, quilts pack easily and can come with you as a little reminder of home, wherever you are.
For the same reason—along with supporting local traditional craftspeople—quilts also make a great souvenir, particularly the specific styles that are so emblematic of a place. Gillespie likens the popularity and variance of quilting around the world to that of cuisine: each place has its own distinct style. Like food, quilts can be artisanal, but also extremely functional, and often hold a special place in rituals—religious or secular. "They reflect the culture—you can see it and know it came from a certain place."
Mainly sewn by the women in the Sindh province of Pakistan and nearby, Ralli quilts are known for their diagonal placement of similar blocks of dyed cloth. They use thick thread stitches in straight lines sewing together the designed layer with the bottom layer of old shawls or similar, with some scraps or cotton in between.
Hawaiian quilts use a lot of botanical patterns, made from a single big piece of cloth with a cut layer of fabric on top. Supposedly, the designs were originally based on how the sun makes certain patterns of the foliage on the lawn, where the artist would then trace and cut the textile.
Sashiko embroidery in Japan was an old sewing technique to mend clothing, but has now been adapted to use the same running stitch in quilting. Specific needles and white cotton thread on blue indigo cloth form the traditional version, but red thread is sometimes used to make the classic geometric patterns, and modern quilters vary the fabric.
Pojagi or Bojagi are Korean wrapping clothes—traditionally used to wrap gifts, but also to cover or store everyday items. They can be embroidered from a single large piece of cloth, or made from a patchwork of scraps. Traditionally, it uses hand-sewn flat fell seams, which remove any raw edges and makes them two-sided. Now, the same techniques and designs are worked into all types of textiles—wall-hangings, tablecloths, and even quilts.
On remote Fogo Island off the edge of New Foundland on Canada's eastern coast, locals carry on their long traditions of quilting—including numerous styles and patterns. The quilt shown here demonstrates the decorative herringbone stitch.
Travelers passing through Lancaster, Pennsylvania—the heart of America's Amish country—will see may locally made quilts for sale. While not all of the quilts are hand-sewn, the Amish don't use electric sewing machines to make the quilts. Typically, Amish quilts use patchwork to make patterns of swirls, diamonds, wreaths, and grids, as well as the eight-sided Star of Bethlehem pictured here.
The minority Hmong in Laos are known for their folk crafts, including many types of textiles. They are particularly known for intricate needlework, specifically a reverse appliqué called paj ntaub, meaning "flower cloth," and story cloths that depict life events. In Laos and the U.S., they have adapted these to quilt format to make them appealing for customers.
These days, Bangladesh's textile industry is known more for fast fashion than quilting, but the stunning kantha quilts show the local tradition. Made by repurposing worn out saris or sarongs in whole pieces sown together with a running stitch for a rippling effect, kanthas are said to keep the user safe from harm.
Italy and Hungary
Bargello quilts are stunning arrangements of strips of fabric sewn together, resulting in the illusion of motion. Though it is named after a palace in Florence, Italy, the technique of using offset vertical stitches to make the colorful geometric patterns are thought to originate from Hungary.
These Provençal quilts are made from one big piece of cloth, then stitched with a stuffing—the literal meaning of the "boutis"—inside that gives them a three-dimensional effect.