Quilting has a long history in North America, dating back to the early colonial settlers of the 1600s and bringing together different ethnic and cultural traditions. As well as their practical use for warmth, they were made – often communally – to mark important family occasions such as weddings and births. As quilt-making developed from a practical necessity into skilled folk artistry, different patterns and symbols emerged carrying different meanings. This classic ‘orange peel’ design is said to have been influenced by Lafayette.
Gilbert de Mortier, Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834) played a key role in both the American and French Revolutions and became known as ‘The Hero of Two Worlds’. As an officer in the French army, he joined the American colonists and was instrumental in achieving the surrender of the British forces at Yorktown. He became a popular hero in the USA, with new towns and cities named after him.
At the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, Lafayette again sympathised with those who wanted to limit the power of the monarchy and establish a more equal society. Inspired and guided by the ideals of the American Revolution, and assisted by Thomas Jefferson who had drafted the American Declaration of Independence, he penned The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, one of history’s most important documents about human and civil rights. Its ideals are still preserved in France’s constitution today.
The link between orange peel quilts, like this one block printed onto cotton, and Lafayette is based on popular legend. The story goes that Lafayette was invited to a banquet to celebrate the colonists’ victory in the American War of Independence. At the end of the meal the guests were offered fruit, as was customary. Lafayette chose an orange, which he cut into four segments before he peeled it. One of the female guests later picked up the discarded segments and, in honour of the French hero, used them as the basis for her next quilt pattern.
Did you know..?
The world’s largest quilt is the AIDS memorial quilt which weighs about 54 tons – the weight of eight elephants, and is still growing.
Sources & acknowledgements
This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above.