A quilt is a multi-layered textile, traditionally composed of three layers of fiber: a woven cloth top, a layer of batting or wadding, and a woven back, combined using the technique of quilting, the process of sewing the three layers together. The pattern of stitching can be the key decorative element if a single piece of fabric is used for the top of a quilt (a "wholecloth quilt"), but in many cases the top is pieced from a patchwork of smaller fabric pieces; and the pattern and color of these pieces will be important to the design.
There are many traditions regarding the uses of quilts. Quilts may be made or given to mark important life events such as marriage, the birth of a child, a family member leaving home, or graduations. Modern quilts are not always intended for use as bedding, and may be used as wall hangings, table runners, or tablecloths. Quilting techniques are often incorporated into garment design as well. Quilt shows and competitions are held locally, regionally, and nationally. There are international competitions as well, particularly in the United States, Japan, and Europe.
Quilting was often a communal activity, involving all the women and girls in a family or in a larger community. There are also many historical examples of men participating in these quilting traditions. The tops were prepared in advance, and a quilting bee was arranged, during which the actual quilting was completed by multiple people. Quilting frames were often used to stretch the quilt layers and maintain even tension to produce high-quality quilting stitches and to allow many individual quilters to work on a single quilt at one time. Quilting bees were important social events in many communities, and were typically held between periods of high demand for farm labor. Quilts were frequently made to commemorate major life events, such as marriages.
Quilts were often made for other events as well, such as graduations, or when individuals left their homes for other communities. One example of this is the quilts made as farewell gifts for pastors; some of these gifts were subscription quilts. For a subscription quilt, community members would pay to have their names embroidered on the quilt top, and the proceeds would be given to the departing minister. Sometimes the quilts were auctioned off to raise additional money, and the quilt might be donated back to the minister by the winner. A logical extension of this tradition led to quilts being made to raise money for other community projects, such as recovery from a flood or natural disaster, and later, for fundraising for war. Subscription quilts were made for all of America's wars. In a new tradition, quilt makers across the United States have been making quilts for wounded veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts.
Reverse applique is a sewing technique where a ground fabric is cut, another piece of fabric is placed under the ground fabric, the raw edges of the ground fabric are tucked under, and the newly folded edge is sewn down to the lower fabric. Stitches are made as inconspicuous as possible. Reverse applique techniques are often used in combination with traditional applique techniques, to give a variety of visual effects.
English paper piecing is a hand-sewing technique used to maximize accuracy when piecing complex angles together. A paper shape is cut with the exact dimensions of the desired piece. Fabric is then basted to the paper shape. Adjacent units are then placed face to face, and the seam is whipstitched together. When a given piece is completely surrounded by all the adjacent shapes, the basting thread is cut, and the basting and the paper shape are removed.
Bangladeshi quilts, known as Kantha, are not pieced together. Rather, they consist of two to three pieces of cloth sewn together with decorative embroidery stitches. They are made out of worn-out clothes (saris) and are mainly used for bedding, although they may be used as a decorative piece as well. They are made by women mainly in the Monsoon season before winter.
Mola textiles are a distinct tradition created by the Kuna people of Panama and Colombia. They are famous for their bright colors and reverse applique techniques, which create designs with strong cultural and spiritual importance within the indigenous culture. Forms of animals, humans, or mythological figures are featured, with strong geometric designs in the voids around the main image. These textiles are not traditionally used as bedding, but use techniques common to the larger international quilting tradition. Molas have been very influential on modern quilting design.