“Fabric had to be got”: quilting then, refashioning now

A few weeks ago I wrote a roundup of recent books on refashioning garments for examiner.com. While I was working on the story, it occurred to me that refashioning is the new quilting. What we have a lot of these days is cheap clothing that might not fit us that well or serve our purposes. What refashioners do is turn these unwanted items into something that fits better, suits a style better, or serves some completely different purpose than what it was originally intended to do.

Early quilters started making patchwork quilts because fabric was so precious to them. Even small pieces of fabric were worth keeping and reusing however possible. When a length of fabric had been used for a garment, altered and patched, maybe cut down into a smaller garment for a child, and finally worn out, there would be parts of the fabric that were still usable, and they could be combined with other small pieces to make a quilt to keep someone warm.

I’ve often thought that nineteenth century housewives would be horrified at the fact that most of us quilters these days go to the fabric store, buy lengths of fabric, and then cut those perfectly good pieces of fabric up in order to sew them together again in a different arrangement. As Sandi Fox points out in the fascinating book Quilts: California Bound, California Made 1840-1940, which I’ll be reviewing for the San Francisco Book Review’s next issue, those traveling overland to the west had challenges that regular folks didn’t: “The equipment they required – needles and pins, thread, and a small scissors – could be carried in their pockets, but fabric had to be got.”

I’m no expert in medieval clothing, but I’ve read that a lot of garments were made in basic shapes and sizes no matter what your size, and made to fit using temporary adjustments. For example, you’d have a loose smock underneath a corset-style bodice which was laced up, and could obviously thus fit different ladies and during different stages of life. (It’s not like you could head off to the Pea in a Pod store every time you got pregnant.) Sleeves would be separate from a jacket and laced together, so either could be replaced or cleaned separately; the same with pants (which is why they’re called pants, plural, in English, not just pant, because the legs used to be separate from one another). It’s a different approach to the same goal as quilters, using a precious resource (fabric) in ways that made it easy to reuse for the next purpose or the next person’s need.

Signs point to the likelihood of the cost of fabric going back up again – this ‘golden age’ of relatively cheap fabric and clothes is coming to an end, more than likely. I wonder if future generations will still make quilts by cutting up new fabric, or whether patchwork reuse will make a comeback. I bet that refashioning will continue to become more popular, too.