Log in

A Brief History of Applique

By Millie Carter

The word “appliqué” comes from French meaning “applied, fastened to.”  It’s the past participle of the verb “appliquér”, to apply.  One dictionary definition of the word refers to “a decorative feature, as a sconce, applied to a surface.[1]  New World Dictionary of the American Language states “a decoration or trimming made of one material attached by sewing, gluing, etc. to another.”[2]  The word traveled with the French as they explored the world.  William the Conquer probably brought it to England in 1066; Napoleon took it to Egypt where appliquéing a design on tents was a long-established custom.

The word “quilt” comes to English via the Old French word “cuilte” which, in turn, is from the Latin “culcita.”  The Romans used a “culcita” as a mattress made from a sandwich of two fabric layers with a light padding in the middle.  The Japanese do the same thing with their “futon”.

Appliqué and patchwork have been known around the world and used in daily life for almost 2,500 years.  The oldest surviving example of patchwork is an Egyptian canopy quilt from 980 B.C.[3] Patchwork and appliqué were used in many cultures to create clothing, saddle blankets, tents, and other everyday items.  It wasn’t, of course, called appliqué but whatever word their language had for that type of work.

Until cloth (in particular cotton) became readily available, appliqué was not necessarily a part of patchwork or quilting but used and placed on different materials such as leather and canvas.  Designs appliquéd to everyday items were often symbols thought to be important as protection to the user, to identify families by their crests, or to depict familiar animals, flowers, and other things seen in everyday life.

Quilting and appliqué originated and were extensively used in and around Asia, spreading from there to Europe during the Crusades along the Silk Road.  Channel-quilted vests and jackets were found to be effective to deflect arrows in battle. Japanese ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) had a quilted cream-colored campaign vest with a stylized paulownia flower in bright red on the back.[4] 

The word “ruche” comes from Old French to describe the cork oak hives made to keep bees warm in winter and cool in summer.[5]  Appliqué enthusiasts know the word as a method of creating three-dimensional accents on appliqué quilts.

Different cultures developed different styles of quilting.  Whole cloth quilts, trapunto (Latin), and stripy quilts were popular in various countries.  Patchwork, quilting, and appliqué, as we know them today, are uniquely American.  The United States of America itself has a history unlike any other in the world.  Immigrants started arriving from England, Scotland, and Ireland, then other countries.  They brought the various arts and crafts they were familiar with.  Appliqué patterns were transferred from familiar designs onto cloth, as well as translating the new land’s flora and fauna onto quilts. 

Various regions of the United States created their own style of patchwork, quilting, and appliqué.  Several old patchwork and appliqué patterns were renamed or altered to show pride and support in emerging American politics and culture.  The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) museum in Washington, DC, has outstanding appliqué quilts dating from the 1780s in their quilt collection. Examples of early American appliqué would be the boderie perse quilts of Virginia[6], and Baltimore albums of Maryland.[7] 

To see some of our members’ appliqué, please visit our Show and Share Page. For further history on appliqué and quilting in general, the website www.historyofquilts is very useful and interesting. 


[1] The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, (1967)

[2] New World Dictionary of the American Language, (1986)


[4] Japanese Quilts, Jill Liddell & Yuko Watanabe, 1985

[5] History of Food, Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, 1987 (translated by Anthea Bell, 1992)

[6] First Flowerings:  Early Virginia Quilts, DAR Museum, Gloria Seaman Allen, Curator (1987)

[7] A Maryland Album: Quiltmaking Traditions 1634-1934 by Gloria Seaman Allen & Nancy Gibson Tuckhorn (1995)

If you use a web-based email server (like Google or Yahoo) you may need to copy & paste one of the addresses on the left to a new "Compose email box" within your email account.

The Applique Society
P.O. Box 1593

Freeland, WA 98249-1593

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software