Patchwork probably originated in England and the oldest surviving example, dating from 1708, can be seen in a set of bed coverings at Levens Hall in Cumbria.
It is unlikely, however, that this was the first patchwork quilt ever made, since it is quite sophisticated and well designed.
Until recently patchwork quilts were made primarily as an economical way to keep warm, rather than for their decorative properties. They would have been made from usable scraps of worn out clothing and other items, or from the left‑over scraps when making new clothes.
The traditional English method of piecing involved cutting up multiple interlocking shapes, such as hexagons or diamonds, from pieces of paper; slightly larger scraps of fabric were tacked over the papers before being sewn together, either completely randomly, or in a structured design to give the impression of flowers or stars.
Quilts and quilt-making migrated to America with the early colonists in the 18th Century and by the 19th Century they had developed their own style of quilts, constructed in blocks, which were themselves comprised of mostly square or triangular patches.
The design of these blocks became more significant, with each one having its own name (or in many cases several names from various sources). In the early 20th Century many newspapers and magazines featured articles on quilt-making and published block patterns for people to use at home.
The popularity of patchwork declined in the mid-20th Century, but has seen a revival in the last 20 – 30 years with most modern quilts being made from purpose‑bought fabrics rather than scraps. The development of modern sewing machines and threads has resulted in a cross-over between machine embroidery and quilting, with a lot of contemporary quilts being made for their artistic value rather than their practical use.