What is Patchwork?

Mary McMahon

Patchwork is a type of needlework in which pieces of small material are sewn together to make a much larger finished piece, such as a quilt or a skirt. While patchwork has its origins in a desire to use up scraps of fabric or to rework older garments, it has evolved into an art form in several countries around the world. Some very beautiful examples of patchwork can be seen in museum collections, or in private homes, where quilts may be passed down through several generations.

Block quilting and crazy quilting are examples of patchwork.
Block quilting and crazy quilting are examples of patchwork.

There are numerous different styles of patchwork, ranging from block quilting to crazy quilting. Styles like block quilting are very carefully arranged, using repeating patterns to build up a larger finished textile, while crazy quilting is freehanded, with pieces of all different shapes and sizes being sewn together. The finished patchwork product may be further ornamented with embroidery, appliqué, and other accents, depending on the taste of the craftsperson.

Patchwork quilts often include squares cut from brightly colored fabric.
Patchwork quilts often include squares cut from brightly colored fabric.

In quilting, patchwork is used to make the top layer of a quilt. A layer of batting is placed between the patchwork and a single sheet on the bottom of the quilt, or patchwork may be used to make both outer layers. The pieces of patchwork are sewn together with lines of thread which break the quilt up into small sections, ensuring that the stuffing remains evenly distributed for the life of the quilt. In some cases, the quilting may be accomplished with tufts which are tied off at even intervals, to accomplish the same effect.

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Garments may also be made from patchwork, particularly skirts and jackets. While patchwork may be associated with hippie garments, it also appears on fashion runways, often in luxurious fabrics like silk, satin, and velvet. This patchwork is a far cry from textiles made from well-loved fabric, but it is constructed in exactly the same way.

Hand-sewn patchwork tends to be more expensive, because of the immense amount of manual labor involved, and hand-sewn work tends to take the form of heirlooms which are treasured as a result. Patchwork can also be created with the assistance of a sewing machine, and most modern quilters use sewing machines, because they save time and ensure even, clean stitching. Some quilts may be finished by hand, however, especially in the case of tufted quilts.

A patchworked textile may incorporate several types of fabric, creating interplays of color, texture, and weight. These patches are usually carefully arranged so that they will be aesthetically appealing, and this was true of old scrap quilts as well. Patchwork is the basis of modern disciplines like watercolor quilting, in which small patches of fabric are arranged in subtle gradations of color to look like watercolors. Patchworks can be bright and colorful, in the case of Hawaiian and Polynesian quilting, or more simple and subtle, in the instance of Amish quilting.

Small pieces of fabric are pieced together to form a patchwork quilt.
Small pieces of fabric are pieced together to form a patchwork quilt.

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Discussion Comments


Every grandmother knows (or should know) that the gift of a patchwork quilt is one of the most awesome things a grandkid can receive. Those things get turned into heirlooms quite often and, if taken care of well, can be handed down from generation to generation.

Also, someone who is good at making these can turn selling them into a lucrative home based business. Good quilts can fetch hundreds of dollars and are popular at craft fairs and small shops that feature "folksy" items.

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