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Grandmother’s Flower Garden

I want to talk about the third quilt in the 1920-1930 popular pattern trinity.  We’ve talked about the first two – Sunbonnet Sue and the Double Wedding Ring Quilt.  I mentioned Grandmother’s Flower Garden (hereafter known as GFG) was just as well-known as the other two.   During the 1930’s all three quilts were so popular quilt shows often gave each quilt their own categories at state fairs. You’ll find there are some similarities in the histories of the Double Wedding Ring Quilt and the GFG.  We’ll start with the history first. 

When I see any quilt made of hexagon patches, the first idea which pops into my mind is GFG.  The six-sided shape is so identified with this quilt pattern that it’s difficult to wrap your mind around the concept hexagons are used in lots of other ways in both pieced and appliqued quilts.  However, it’s important to remember this geometric shape wasn’t used in what we recognize as a GFG until much later in its quilty life.  In its beginning – way back in 18th century England – it was known as a “one-patch.”  The term “one-patch” was given to any quilt patch which solely used throughout the piecing process to make the quilt.  So, a hexagon was a one-patch….

But so was this…

And this

because the entire quilt top is made up of only one kind of patch. 

No one knows exactly who came up with the hexagonal one-patch.  Perhaps some quilter was inspired by the mosaic tile work in a floor, wall, or stained-glass window. 

Maybe they took inspiration from a seal.

We don’t know for sure and probably never will be able to pinpoint who took the first scrap of fabric and formed a hexie out of it.  What we do realize is this six-sided patch formed quilt blocks like this:

And the English quilters gave these blocks the names Flower Garden, Mosaic, Honeycomb, Six-Sided Patchwork, French Rose Garden and French Bouquet.  We’ll talk about how all of these names merged into the one single name we recognize – Grandmother’s Flower Garden – a little later in the blog. 

As you’re able to tell, in the outset, the hexagons weren’t used in what we consider the “traditional” GFG.  They were used in a variety of ways and in a variety of settings.  Another characteristic of those early one-patch quilts were the colors.  We’re used a conventional color palette of pastels which must include yellow centers, green, and white.  The earlies hexagonal quilts were made in browns and grays and fabric choices ranged from silk to wool to calicoes.  So, how did all these changes come about? 

Just like Sunbonnet Sue and the Double Wedding Ring, the GFG is an immigrant to this country.  The early renditions of the quilt left England by the 18th century.  As a matter of fact, by 1770, quilt historians can trace  hexie templates to this country.  Many quilt historians believe the hexagon quilt block is one of the oldest quilt patterns.  It’s probably not older than the four-patch, but most likely older than the earliest Double Wedding Ring Quilts (remember, DWR quilts existed long before they were called DWR – that name wasn’t adopted until the 1930’s).  We do know the first  GFG block pattern was printed in 1835 in Godey’s Ladies Book, and it was called Mosaic.  This was the earliest printed quilt pattern of any type in America. 

Unlike the Double Wedding Ring, we really can’t pin down when the Mosaic block was re-branded as Grandmother’s Flower Garden.  With the DWR, we can pin down publications and their dates to come up with a highly reasonable time when the block and quilt became universally known as the Double Wedding Ring.  We can set an acceptable timeline for Sunbonnet Sue’s birth.  Not so with GFG.  We do know that as late as 1929, it was called Honeycomb as well as GFG.  At some point during the 1930’s, quilters settled on one name and just like the DWR, the moniker stuck.  When we look at a quilt like this:

Both quilters and most non-quilters know this is as Grandmother’s Flower Garden Quilt.

The next part of this blog is my speculation, but I do base it on the reading and quilt research I have done – which encompasses what a lot of quilt historians have written about the GFG.  We know during the Depression Era, mid-west publications such as The Kansas City Star, printed quilt pattern advertisements in every publication.  For a very small fee, you could write into the newspaper and receive instructions on how to make the block.  Quite often, you didn’t even have to send off for the pattern.  Lots of newspapers and magazines published the directions in each edition.  It stands to reason it was during this time the name Grandmother’s Flower Garden became so strongly associated with the Mosaic block that all other names fell by the wayside – just like what happed with the Double Wedding Ring.

However, unlike the DWR, a particular color palette became closely linked to the GFG – to the point we nearly wince when we see any GFG which deviates from it. 

The center is nearly always yellow, representing the center of a flower.  The first group of hexies (a total of six) surrounding the center could be any color, but they were usually a solid color and were in the pastel family.  The next grouping consisted of 12 hexagons and these were generally also a pastel solid.  The last group of 20 hexagons were either white (representing a picket fence surrounding the garden) or green (representing the flower bed or garden).  Depending on the pattern, there may also be diamond shaped “joiners” around each block, playing the role of sashing.  These diamonds could vary in color, but most of the time they were green – especially if the last row of hexies was white. 

At this point, we have to ask, “Why was this pattern so popular during the Depression Era?”  A quick glance at the pattern lets you know the quilt would be a scrap-buster.  Quilt patterns such as GFG and the Double Wedding Ring were/are popular because both use up serious scrappage.  And during the Great Depression, people were learning to make do with what they had.  Any leftover bits of fabric from garment construction, etc., weren’t thrown out.  They were carefully saved for projects such as these two quilts.  However, I suspect that like the DWR quilt, the makers were after more than just a pattern which would use up scraps.

If you remember from my blog on DWR quilts, we discovered quilt makers made the DWR quilts for entertainment and a little friendly competition.  Quilters competed to see how many squares they could put in the arches and how small they could make them.  With the GFG, we see quilters competing in a similar way – how small could they make the hexagons and if they could make all the flowers differently.  These quilts were more than just a way to keep your family warm – they entertained the quilt maker during the Depression’s dark days of making do and wondering if your family members would make it home from World War II.  However, like Sunbonnet Sue and the DWR, it’s difficult to pin down exact reasons.  Until the Women’s Movement, quilts and quilting were considered “women’s work”, and no one could see the need for documenting anything much.  Families were fortunate if the best quilts were saved and passed down to the next generation.  You were even luckier if there was a label or accurate oral history given with the quilt. 

Overall, how you construct a GFG hasn’t changed that much.  During the quilt’s heyday, cardboard templates were cut from cereal boxes, newspapers, old mail – anything sturdy enough to make the required sized hexagon.  The template was laid on the fabric and traced, then cut out with enough seam allowance to enable the quilter to baste the fabric to the template.  When enough hexies were made, they were whipped stitched together to form a block.

In other words, they were English Paper Pieced.  Nowadays many quilters still make their hexagon patches the same way, however, we’re fortunate enough to have pre-cut card stock which we use to glue-baste the fabric instead of thread-basting it.  Then the hexie patches are whipped stitched together.  Some quilters leave the papers or cardstock in until the quilt is complete and then take them all out at once.  Others don’t.  If you’re fortunate enough to find an old GFG or other hexagon quilt which used newspapers for the templates and those templates are still in the quilt, it may be easy to date your quilt if you can find a template with a year printed on it. 

While I’ve always admired GFG, I have never been a huge fan of English Paper Piecing.  I am constructing my GFG by using Cindy Blackberg’s Hexagon and Connector Stamps.  This method completely alleviates the use of papers of any sort.  I simply stamp my hexies and connectors out on the wrong side of my fabric, cut the out, and then sew along the stamped sewing line.  Cindy retired a few years ago and her stamps are no longer manufactured.  Occasionally you can find them on Ebay.  However, a Google search came up with a few stamp suppliers.  If you own an Accuquilt, this company has several sizes of hexagon templates.  So does Inklingo as well as the Brother Scan and Cut (and I imagine other such cutters have similar templates). 

After the GFG quilt top is made, the next step is quilting it.  This is one of the few quilts which has a traditional quilt pattern.  The hexagons are generally quilted ¼-inch in from the seam.  But while researching the GFG for my blog, I came across this:

And it completely took my breath away.  Obviously, this is machine quilting (I couldn’t find out who did the quilting or if it was done on a domestic machine or long arm).  Finding this picture has made me completely re-think how I want my GFG quilted. 

Before I close out this blog, I want to stop and have us consider the hexagon patch all by itself.  I know we’ve concentrated on one particular quilt pattern it’s used in.  But hexagons lend themselves as much to applique as to piecing:

They’re a perfect patch for flowers.  They can serve as building blocks for walls, trees, and snowmen. 

Fussy cut and strategically placed, they are stunning sitting alone on a background. 

And then there’s this awesome idea (which is not mine, but belongs to Avery Lane Sewing). 

Hexagon cupcakes.

So, besides being the lone patch in one of the most easily recognized quilt patterns ever, the hexie patch has tons of potential when used all by itself.  The sky’s the limit with this little block.  Just think outside the hexagonal box.

Until next week, Quilt On!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

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