Double Wedding Ring Quilts — The Quilt Surrounded by Myths

This quilt….

Probably needs no introduction.  It’s a Double Wedding Ring.  For years it’s been prized by collectors and esteemed by quilters.  To make one of these – and make it well – is one of the hallmarks of a skilled quilter.  When I began research on this quilt, I had only heard it called a Double Wedding Ring (DWR from here on out).  I also assumed it came into quilty context during the 1920’s and 1930’s.  I was wrong on both counts.  The Shelburne Museum has a DWR dating between 1825 – 1850, and it’s called Pincushion.  The more I studied DWR quilts the more I realized the real history behind its origins is lost in a murky maze of design changes and multiple names.  Before the 1920’s it went by many names – Rainbow, Around the World, Pickle Dish, Coiled Rattlesnake, Endless Chain, King Tut, and Friendship Knot – are just a few.  And it has undergone just as many design alterations.  To get to the bottom of this quilt’s myth and mystery, we’re about to take a deep dive into the world of the DWR. 

The beginnings of the DWR block name may have its origins with this block:

This is the Single Wedding Ring and the earliest published mention of the SWR was October 1, 1887 in Farm Life and Home.  The SWR was also called Sawtooth and Odd Scraps Patchwork.  It is worth mentioning when the SWR was published, it was not given any name, the block was only illustrated in an engraving.  It wasn’t called SWR until April 12, 1930 in the Kansas City Star.  Since that point, it has been consistently called by the name SWR.  There is much discussion among quilt historians concerning the theory if the name change for this block was due to the popularity of the DWR.  We may never know, but while there are some construction similarities between the two blocks, the DWR actually is more closely linked to other quilt blocks (more on this a little later). 

The first time the quilt was called by the name Double Wedding Ring was in Capper’s Weekly on October 28, 1928.  According to the Topeka, Kansas publication, Mrs. JD Patterson of Wellington, KS designed the block and gave it the name.  Whether this is true or even if there was such a person as Mrs. JD Patterson, we may never know.  What we do know is you could order the pattern from Capper’s for the grand sum of fifteen cents.  Then came this lady:

Ruby Short McKim.  If you’re like me and are an avid appliquer, you know her for her applique patterns.  But Mrs. McKim had some serious piecing skills too, and on October 31, 1928, she published the pattern in the Weekly Kansas City.  It’s worth noting she didn’t call the pattern DWR until she published her 1931 catalog, Designs Worth Doing.  I imagine she finally decided to call the pattern DWR then because the pattern was hugely popular (no matter who was publishing the pattern) and this was the name which quilters knew and knew well.  As a matter of fact, the DWR was so popular, for the next 10 years The Kansas City Star published the pattern multiple times and quilters began to get quite competitive by seeing how small they could make the squares in the rings and how many they could fit in each block. 

To keep this quilt in context, it’s important we remember the time frame in which the DWR popularity peaks.  Like most quilt blocks, it appeared in quilts long before it received a name that stuck.  However, it’s interesting to note the DWR, Grandmother’s Flower Garden, and Sunbonnet Sue all hit the height of their fame during the 1920’s and 1930’s.  We’ve already done a deep dive into Sunbonnet Sue, but haven’t yet really touched on Grandmother’s Flower Garden.  To put it in perspective, there were so many DWR and Grandmother’s Flower Garden quilts dominating state and county fairs, a lot of them gave these two quilts their own categories in their shows.  As a matter of fact, one fair in Missouri counted 161 DWR quilts in that quilt category.  Most quilt historians will definitely agree the DWR reached the height of its popularity during the twenties-to-thirties decade and most of the catalogued DWRs fit into those ten years.  Despite this, there are some collectors who believe their quilts are pre-Depression era.  This is perhaps due to the fact that although a time-current DWR pattern was used, the quilt was made out of pre-1920’s fabric (hey, stash is stash…use it up whenever).   Usually, a close look at construction techniques can clear this up – for instance if stars were used instead of four-patches to join the rings, the quilt could very well be pre-1920. 

However, the longer I looked into the DWR, its inception, and its rise in fame, the nagging question kept tickling my mind:  What made it so popular?  All those curves and bias…it’s not an easy quilt.  And you also have to ask, since the quilt was unilaterally made across the United States, how did everyone (pre-internet and Pinterest) learn about the pattern?  Let’s look at the last question first.

We know for a fact the first time the pattern published under the name DWR, was 1928 in Kansas.  Varying Kansas-based publications (primarily newspapers) published the pattern frequently during the ensuing 10 years.   We know other publications picked the pattern up from the mid-west newspapers and the DWR went on to be published in newspapers and magazines up and down east coast and further west.  The pattern was printed in enough publications and so frequently anyone who wanted to obtain the directions and make the quilt was certainly able to do so.

What made it so popular?  I imagine Depression era quilters were no different than we are today – you see a pretty pattern and you want to make it.  And despite the construction challenges the DWR brings to the table, it is a lovely quilt pattern.  Yet the real reason behind its popularity depends on which quilt group you ask – those who either inherited or were given the quilt or those who actually made the quilt.  During the mid-1970’s through the eighties, a nationwide push began for the states to catalogue and index the antique and almost-antique quilts of their citizens.  Various quilt groups and guilds set about this task and were extremely successful.  Part of the intake process (besides photographs) was a questionnaire concerning the history of the quilt – how did you come by it?  Handmade or machine stitched?  Why was this quilt made?  The folks who didn’t make the DWR answered the last question generally in two ways – it was made for warmth or it used up scraps.  Both of these answers are valid, but if the person who made the quilt was present, the answers could be starkly different:  I made it for entertainment or I made it because it was a challenge.  Both of those last answers, at least in my opinion, shows us quilters really haven’t changed all that much.

The more I researched the more I realized another important characteristic about this quilt:  It’s surrounded by more myth than truth.  The first myth surrounds its publication and how it came to be named DWR.  According to Capper’s Weekly (the weekly Kansas publication which published the first DWR pattern), the name was conceived when some unknown man came up with the idea of a double wedding ring ceremony and this gave his wife the idea of a double-ringed quilt. Then in 1932 a brochure was published which connected the DWR to the Civil War.  The publication offered the story of a grandmotherly woman who had made many quilts.  One was particularly special, and she was saving it for a niece’s wedding.  The wedding had been postponed because the groom had been wounded in the war and had been hospitalized for quite a while.  When the wedding date came, the groom had no money for rings, and the niece told her aunt the sad news.  Reportedly the grandmotherly woman said, “My child, I’ll furnish the rings.  You’ll have my favorite quilt, and we will call it the Double Wedding Ring.”

Fascinating stories, but neither are true…even the part which notates the quilt was originally designed in Kansas.  This is the second myth which surrounds the DWR.  The Ladies Art Company in St. Louis also published the pattern in its 1928 catalogue with a 1928 copyright.  So does the DWR claim Kansas or Missouri citizenship?  The fact is we may never know.  Like most of women’s art prior to the Women’s Movement, quilting was relegated a second-class citizenship no matter where it originated.  Apart from patterns printed in newspapers and ribbons awarded at fairs, not much thought or factual preservations was thrown its way. 

Gimmel Rings

However, we can trace back where the concept of the DWR may have begun.  Engravings of what we consider to be this block appeared in fourth century Roman drinking cups.  Gimmel rings, found primarily in England during the 15th and 16th centuries also may have contributed to the DWR idea.  Gimmel rings were a type of engagement rings.  The Gimmel ring varies from our 21st century engagement in this concept — both the man and woman wore one.  Once the wedding occurred, the woman wore both rings.  And as late as the 17th century, Germanic people who settled in the United States wore the block on their clothing and painted or carved it in their furniture. 

So, we have some idea of where the concept of the DWR came from, but how did this get translated into a quilt block?  Does the DWR have any quilty DNA which can link it to other blocks?  Well…yes…sort of.

A quick glance at the above 19th century Pickle Dish blocks show where perhaps the first construction idea came from.  Some enterprising quilter probably got tired of making all those triangles and decided squares would be easier.  This would be my theory.  However, if you take a look at the Indian Wedding Ring block below (which was also popular during the 1930’s), it’s easy to see how this quilt block could also lead to the DWR.

  Still, if you look back even further, you find this block:

This is known as the Burr Block or Pine Burr Block.  When placed in a quilt, the effect is very similar to the DWR.  So, if you really want to go all Ancestry.com on the DWR, and consider the Pine Burr a possible quilty DNA donor, you will have to place the quilt’s actual origins in Tennessee, Louisiana, and Texas.  Those states are the first ones we see the Pine Burr block and quilts developed and designed. More than likely as Southerners went West (especially after the Civil War), the Pine Burr block morphed into the Pickle Dish and Indian Wedding Ring and then made the jump to what we know as the DWR. 

One more esoteric fact about the DWR before we leave its history behind:  North Carolina has its own version, and as far as my research can tell, we’re the only state to lay claim to this DWR fact.  Behold the Scuppernong Hull Quilt:

Whether a group of North Carolina quilters took one long look at a Pickle Dish, Indian Wedding Ring, or Pine Burr block and just thought all those blocks or triangles were too much work, we may never know.  They may have decided just to use solid, non-pieced rings cut on the bias instead of employing all that piecing.  However, as a native North Carolinian, I like to think those quilters were inspired by the Scuppernong Hull itself. 

For those of you who have never eaten this delectable fruit, let me explain.  The Scuppernong is a grape with a skin so thick it can’t be chewed up like a green or red grape.  To properly eat one of these, you take a ripe Scuppernong and with your thumb and index finger, squeeze the inside of it out – preferably right into your mouth.  As a child, I spent many pleasant North Carolina summer afternoons doing this very thing.  Scuppernongs make the best jelly and juice.  And very good wine, if you’re so inclined to make some of that.  The discarded hulls look much like the rings in the Scuppernong Hull Quilt.  It was always a good idea to pitch these somewhere pretty quickly, as the sweet juice attracted all kinds of bees and wasps. 

Today we find the DWR quilt still morphing into something new.  While there are still plenty of traditional DWRs still made…

There are lots of patterns which take the original concept and twist it.  Victoria Findlay Wolfe completely deconstructs the “traditional” look of a DWR and replaces it with plays on the negative space, ring construction, and fabric choices. 

Judy Niemeyer has several DWR quilts which toss applique into the quilty equation or replaces the traditional four-patch which joins the rings with stars.

And also gone are the historic calicoes and feed sack prints used.  Today’s DWR quilts have a myriad of background colors and the rings run the gamut from modern prints to batiks. 

SONY DSC

The one which is currently under my needle (off and on…I can only work on her for a days at time) has a yellow background and batik squares.  There are templates to help you make the block, as well as paper piecing patterns.  I’m using John Flynn’s method:

It takes more time than paper piecing, but the rings and melons go together effortlessly.

Despite the changing times, fabric, and patterns, the DWR remains one of the most well-loved and challenging quilts to make.  If you’re a true beginner quilter-sewer, this quilt isn’t for you…give yourself a year or two to gain some experience.  But if you feel as if you’re quilting mojo is stuck in a rut, you may want to give the DWR a try.  If all that bias and those rings make you feel a little iffy about the process, make a small one.  There is no rule which says all quilts have to fit on a bed!

Until next week, Quilt On!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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