A Rose by Any Other Name

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

–William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Roses are one of the most – if not the most – familiar flowers in the world.  They’ve been plied in poetry, sung about in songs, listed in literature, and (depending on the color chosen) can symbolize true love, purity, innocence, or jealousy.  There’s a parade every year in California which celebrates them, and they can either be the consolation prize, anniversary gift, bride’s bouquet, or funeral spray.

Yup.  Roses get around.

So, it should be no surprise roses have twined and climbed their way into the quilting world.  There are a few pieced rose blocks and quite a few paper pieced rose blocks.  However, by far the majority of quilt blocks with roses in them are applique blocks.  Today, I want to discuss the history of these blocks – how they came about and why.  I should also warn you that despite their lovely appearance in quilts, quite a few of these fabric roses come with some thorny issues.  Get the beverage of your choice and pull up a chair as we go strolling through the quilted rose garden.

To start with, we must understand the time period rose quilts began to gain popularity.  Prior to the 19th century, the majority (not all, but most) quilts were pieced.  Before this and the rise of the Industrial Revolution, women quilted more for practicality than creativity, self-expression, and any aesthetic goals.  Quilts were made to keep you warm at night and you used your best work and best fabrics in the quilt for the guest bed or those young girls tucked away in their hope chests.  Once fabric became part of the American industrialization process and machines over took the at-home looms, material became cheaper and more abundant because we no longer had to import it or make it ourselves. 

As we moved away from being a farm-driven, agricultural society, households changed.  Income was no longer entirely crop-dependent, so there was some leeway in the household budgets for paid servants and tools which lightened a woman’s workload.  As a result, she suddenly had some precious free time.  Now what to do with it?

I know, I know…right now you and I both want to shout, “Why, she quilted of course!”  And that answer is right…kind of.  While there certainly was time for more of the prettier sewing crafts, the majority of women who had some spare time took up (drum roll, please…)


Now I’m not talking about acres and fields of produce, but they developed a serious interest in kitchen gardens and especially flower gardens.  Store owners and traveling salesmen were quick to take note of this new hobby, and alerted seed companies. In turn, the seed companies began to produce seed catalogues which had the most beautiful, colored renditions of flora and fauna.

And here’s where all of the above ties into rose quilts.  Yes, the women gardened, but they still also made quilts.  At some point (and who knows where or when – there are no records to accurately pin a date), the women decided they wanted to reproduce these beautiful flowers in their quilts.  With their seed catalogs and their own gardens to inspire them, these quilters began to applique flowers in their quilt blocks.  Floral quilts, not just rose quilts, were making a big splash around 1840. 

But who could resist roses?  They’re beautiful and fragrant and if you reproduce them in a quilt, you have a rose garden all year long.  Couple this with the fact roses are used several times in scripture, and you are bound to have some artistic, Bible reading quilters developing an applique quilt pattern.  The block we know as Rose of Sharon probably had the roots of its beginning in The Song of Solomon 2:1-6:

I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.

As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.

As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons.

His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me.

First, let’s talk about the Rose of Sharon block and then we’ll discuss how wrong it is to compare the block to the flower – and I don’t simply mean appearance-wise. 

In the mid-nineteenth century, quilters began to develop the block, which was probably birthed in the mixed influence of scripture and local flower gardens.  Overall, there are a great many Rose of Sharon quilt patterns, but the central idea in each of these is usually the same – there is a central, stylized rose motif and stems and other smaller flowers (also usually roses or rose buds) which radiate out from the central rose.  Some quilt designers made these blocks large, which made the applique process easier and required fewer blocks to make a quilt.  Others made them smaller, resulting in minute, breath-taking detail. 

Rose of Sharon Quilts

These are what are considered “typical” Rose of Sharon blocks.  These beautiful applique quilts were reserved for the best fabric (usually in shades of pink, green, red, and perhaps some yellow).  Usually, Rose of Sharon quilts were used as the “best” quilts in a home, pulled out only when company arrived to stay the night, or as engagement or wedding quilts.  By the end of the nineteenth century, most young, single women on the Eastern United States had at least one of these quilts carefully tucked back in her hope chest.  One tidbit of quilt trivia – Rose of Sharon quilts were much more popular in the Eastern United States than anywhere else in the country.  No one is sure why, and it wasn’t as if no one in the mid-West or far Western US wasn’t making the quilts, but most of the quilts we have in museums and family possessions can trace their roots from Maine to Texas. 

About the same time the Rose of Sharon quilts were developed, another rose pattern came on the scene:  The Ohio Rose.  Here’s where the quilt history of both blocks gets a bit murky.  Some quilt historians use the names of the blocks interchangeably – which is to say, they consider the Rose of Sharon Block and the Ohio Rose to be variations of the same block.  Others don’t.

Rose of Sharon Quilt
Ohio Rose Quilt

I’m one of those quilters who sees two separate blocks, despite the fact both blocks were birthed in same time frame, and both use stylized rose motifs.  For me, just looking at each block:

Rose of Sharon Block
Ohio Rose Block

Shows enough differentiation to the point I believe they are separate and distinct blocks.  However, I’m not the only one who holds to this assumption.  If you type in the name Rose of Sharon in EQ8, the result will yield 31 blocks, with most of them looking like this:

Type Ohio Rose in the search line of EQ8, and you only get two blocks, which look like this:

Even when pieced in a quilt, I don’t think there’s enough similarities to call them different versions of the same block.  The Rose of Sharon generally has vines, stems, and buds radiating out of a large, stylized, center rose.  And while the Ohio Rose has the same type of center rose, usually there are only buds on short stems protruding out from it.  The Rose of Sharon is more elaborate and graceful.  The Ohio Rose is not as showy.

With those differences behind us, now let’s return to the reason why it may be wrong to call the Rose of Sharon a rose to begin with.  Most quilt historians believe the block’s name is a direct reference to the scripture from the Song of Solomon (see reference above).  The plains of Sharon in Palestine vary from fertile to swampy, but a red flower did grow there during biblical times:

Actual “Rose” of Sharon

This flower grew wild (now it is rare and must be cultivated) and in abundance and would have been familiar to the one writing the passage in the Song of Solomon.   However, this red flower is not a rose…it’s a tulip.  As a matter of fact, botanists from this part of the world call it the Sharon Tulip and it grows from a bulb, not on a vine or bush.  There is an actual Rose of Sharon bush, the Hibiscus syriacus, which, despite its taxonomy, is a native of China – not Palestine.

Maybe we should begin a campaign to rename the block…Tulip of Sharon?

Now let’s take a look at these two blocks:

Whig Rose
Democratic Rose

If you’re thinking these are variations of the Tulip Rose of Sharon block, you would be partially correct. The first block is called a Whig Rose and the second is the Democratic Rose.  The Whig Rose has a central motif and is surrounded by eight identical designs radiating out from it.  The Democratic Rose has cockscomb around the central flower.  While the names are often used interchangeably (just like Rose of Sharon and Ohio Rose), they are two distinct blocks used originally for two distinct reasons.  Bear with me, because here’s where quilting became political….

Let me first remind you about the time frame we’re discussing.  As the Whig Rose and the Democratic Rose were designed, the time period is circa 1840… and it’s election time in the United States.  If you think the 2020 election was unique with its polar opposite candidates, mud slinging, debates, character assassinations, and total chaos, think again.  The election of 1840 was probably just as horrendous, but they didn’t have the 24-hour news cycle and social media to contend with.  Henry Clay (a Whig) and Andrew Jackson (a Democrat) were running for President.    I know Whig may be a bit foreign, so let me explain what this party was.  It was a populist party and it stood in defiance of the Democratic party which was pretty autocratic at the time.  Henry Clay and the Whigs supported a strong congress, while the Democrats were content to let the President call the shots and the congress played a more supporting role. 

It was a hard-fought, and sometimes politically dirty, election.   It’s so good to know we’re not the only generation who went through this. Let me also point out during this time, only men had the right to vote in the federal elections and it’s estimated that 80 percent of those males who could vote did vote in the 1840 election. 

Yes, the election was that big.  And while the menfolk could burn up the op ed page in local, state, and national newspapers as well as turn out in droves for in-person debates, women couldn’t.  Most women were relegated to the home and their opinions were not warranted to be scholarly or important enough to be heard outside their own four walls.

Or so the menfolk thought.  We women have always had our own opinions, so I have no doubt the female population of 1840 had their own candidates of choice and probably did tell their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons exactly what they thought about Henry Clay or Andrew Jackson.  However, getting those opinions out from the home front had to be done subtly – thus enter the Whig Rose and the Democratic Rose.  And if you go by the number of surviving quilts in museums and in family inventories, there were far more Whig quilts made than Democratic quilts.  Let me throw in this little tidbit, too:  If you find a quilt made during this period with a raccoon on it, that’s also probably a Whig quilt.  Their animal symbol was the raccoon.  Likewise, if you find a quilt made during this time with a rooster on it, that’s most likely a Democratic quilt – the Democrat’s animal symbol in the 1840’s was a rooster, which is why the cockscomb surrounded the center rose.  The donkey didn’t become the symbol of the Democrat party until 1870 when the cartoonist Thomas Nast popularized it in newspapers. 

Let me add that every with the Whig Rose or Democratic Rose cannot be thrown into the political quilt category.  Lots of quilters simply liked the design and used it.  Many of those quilters called all of these quilts Rose of Sharon.  And some quilters gave the blocks yet other names, such as The Odd Fellows Rose. 

Odd Fellows Rose

This rose quilt has its own distinct set of characteristics.  It has a center rose medallion which has tiny triangles and a square in the center with concave sides.  It has four, not eight, identical motifs which not only include full flowers, stems and leaves, but also berries and cockscomb.   In addition, the Odd Fellows chain is worked into the border.  There is a lot happening in these blocks.  There were other rose blocks also developed with similar Rose of Sharon characteristics:

Kentucky Rose
Prairie Rose
Colonial Rose
Modern Rose of Sharon
Modern rose of Sharon

Modern Rose of Sharon quilts uphold most of the traditional nuances associated with this block, but some characteristics have been twisted.  For instance, the traditional Rose of Sharon quilts were made with pink, red, green, and yellow fabrics.  The modern quilters have no issue with steering away from this color palette. The 21st Century rose blocks are done in every color of the rainbow.  Plus, the historical white or cream background has been replaced with many different shades.  Several years ago, Accuquilt developed the die for the Rose of Sharon quilt for their cutters.  The flowers are also pre-programmed into the Brother Scan and Cut.  While the basic shapes of this block have been preserved, the colors now run the gamut.   

In her quilt-famous book, Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them, Ruth Finley claims the best-known applique pattern is the Rose of Sharon.  I’m not so sure.  Mrs. Finley’s book was published in 1929 – so it was written just a bit before our friend Sunbonnet Sue hit the height of her quilting popularity.  Today, I say both patterns are easily recognizable.  However, I will give our Rose of Sharon this:  It takes far more skill to pull off a Rose of Sharon quilt than it does Sunbonnet Sue.  Sunbonnet Sue is all soft curves and very few shapes.  The Rose of Sharon is sharp valleys and vines.  It’s buds and circles and hills.  It’s points and stems and leaves.  A quilter who can applique a successful Rose of Sharon block by any method has achieved a high level of applique skills. 

And deserves a round of applause.

Until next week, Quilt On!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

PS – In several past blogs I’ve mentioned how important it is to change the needle in your sewing machine after about 8 hours of sewing (you can double that amount of time if you use titanium needles).  I know that after 8 hours of sewing, the needle can still go through fabric pretty well and you may wonder why it’s necessary to change it until you get issues with skipped stitches or the needle breaks.  Well, here’s why….

I came across this picture during my internet searches this week.  The needle on the left is a new sewing machine needle.  The needle on the right is a close up of the same needle after eight hours of sewing.  A picture is worth a thousand words.

Sam says go change the needle in your sewing machine

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