When we think about quilting, we tend to think about hand-crafted patchwork coverlets and puffy down coats. We don’t think about armor. But in fact, quilted armor played an important role in European warfare from the time of the Crusades through the sixteenth century.
The most simple form of quilted armor, the jack, was simple enough for a soldier or his wife to make at home: a sleeved coat made of two outer layers of linen, canvas , or fustion that enclosed a layer of padding, with small pieces of metal stuffed in the padding for extra protection.* The jack’s up-market relative, the brigandine, was made by a professional armorer and combined the flexibility of the jack with the protection of plate. Small metal plates were riveted to a canvas foundation, overlapped like scales for ease of movement. The scaled canvas was then covered with a rich material and a lining.
Whether made by a pro or run up by loving hands at home, so-called “soft armor” was surprisingly effective against sword cuts and arrows, though it provided no protection against a thrown lance or a mace. Even with the advent of metal armor, foot soldiers continued to wear fabric armor as their primary defense and knights wore padded garments in conjunction with chain or plate as an additional defense.
The use of quilted armor finally declined with the rise of firearms and heavy artillery at the beginning of the seventeenth century, only to reappear in the twentieth century in the form of the bulletproof vest.
* Sir Thomas Wyatt, who led a Protestant rebellion in England in 1554, had gold pieces sewn into his jack instead of the usual metal or horn scales so that he would have the dual protection of armor and ready money if he had to flee the country.