This is a blog about Alphabet Quilts. It’s not a blog about the origins of the alphabet. I’m leaving that particular argument up to historians and linguists and this guy:
Who came up with this:
No, today I want to explore alphabet quilts because…well…I’m in the middle of one. And I’m talking about straight-up alphabet quilts (as in A, B, C…), not quilts which have words spelled out in letters. But before we get into my alphabet quilt, let’s take a look into the history of some of these quilts.
Alphabet quilts began appearing between 1906-1950 with some regularity. One of the first alphabet quilt patterns was found in The Ladies Art Company. Most (if not all) of these quilts were pieced. Applique alphabet quilts didn’t appear until later – primarily in the 1930’s to 1940’s. However, it’s interesting to note that the alphabet quilt in The Ladies Art Company offered both pieced and applique directions and color cards (fabric and design suggestions). There is one single letter in the alphabet which was used more than the other 25 in quilts: the letter T.
Most amateur quilt historians believe the letter T was used to represent the Temperance Movement. And while this does seem like a good hypothesis, there is no supporting evidence (labels, provinces, diaries, wills, or household inventories) which support this idea. However, the relationship – real or imagined – between the T-quilts and the Temperance Movement is so closely tied together, that the pieced T-block is called the Temperance T. The Ladies Art Company offered its last alphabet pattern in 1974. Yet the twenty-first century finds different designers and publishers continuing to offer a wide variety of alphabet patterns in both pieced and applique techniques.
Thus….this is where they found me. An on-line group I quilt with (through the fabulous Applique Society) decided to make alphabet quilts. You could design your own pattern or use someone else’s. You could make one letter or all the letters. You could spell words or names. I was intrigued because… well… I had never even considered making an alphabet quilt. I knew there were patterns and books out there for them. And I had viewed lovely alphabet quilts, but had never considered including them in any part of my quilting world. My first inclination was to machine applique name banners for my grand darlings. But then I began to look at patterns and quilts and….
Was quickly sucked down the rabbit hole of quilted ABC’s.
Initially I ordered Applique and Embroidery Fundamentals by Janice Vaine. I loved the design of the letters, and the applique is stunning. But most of the applique work was done by hand. When I decided to make the alphabet quilt, the one caveat I gave myself was it had to done entirely by machine. I currently have three handwork projects on deck and didn’t need to nor did I have time to undertake another one. After a bit more poking around on Pinterest, Google, and Amazon I found this:
Alphabet Quilts Letters for All Ages by Bea Oglesby.
It was love at first look. I really wanted to make her Floral Alphabet, but those flowers deserved the time and attention to detail that only hand applique could give them. However, when I found her Spencerian Alphabet, I was smitten. To shed a little light on what exactly the Spencerian Alphabet is, take a gander at this:
At first glance, most folks think this is cursive writing. And in a way, it is. But the Spencerian Script was taught to students as a type of “business” writing. From around 1850 until 1925 it was the script primarily used in all types of business writing – from wills to deeds to checks – until the typewriter gained momentum and took up space in most offices. We technically still use Spencerian today in more artistic writing endeavors such as calligraphy. Bea Oglesby used Spencerian in this quilt:
And it appealed to me for two reasons. First, it was a bit different from the other alphabet quilts I looked at. I liked the loopy, flowy letters. Second, I liked the layout of the quilt. I liked the way the applique twisted and twined its way off the borders into the center of the quilt. So, after two months of searching and analyzing, I finally made up my mind that this alphabet quilt pattern was the one for me….
Only to have to completely re-think my decision once I read through the pattern. The center part – the one with all the letters? It’s a whole cloth quilt. I wasn’t sure exactly how I would construct this. I knew I could fuse the letters together with the help of an applique sheet, but I also realized pressing all those letters into place on one piece of 36-inch square fabric would allow a lot of room for error. There were quite a few possibilities for mistakes – I could get the letters too close together or too far apart, the rows could run downhill, or I could get the letters out of sequence. Any of these blunders could set me back to square one. I’d have to re-draw, re-fuse, and re-cut. I knew I still wanted to use the Spencerian alphabet, and I loved the layout. I had to get creative.
You see, designing an alphabet quilt isn’t as easy as A, B, C. When you begin to break such a quilt down into units, you realize the 26 letters of the alphabet gives you serious issues, no matter if you’re planning on standard rows or some kind of on-point design. Twenty-six is divisible by itself, two, and thirteen. If rows are in your plan (like they were in mine), I could have two rows with thirteen blocks in them, or thirteen rows with two blocks in them. Either way, that wasn’t going to work for me.
As quilt designers begin to plan an alphabet quilt, they immediately realize they will have to supplement with more blocks or employ negative space. Some alphabet quilts, especially antique ones, will include blocks which spell out the quilter’s name, the date, or the numbers 1-9. I knew I’d need to get pretty creative in how I handled this quilt. While I knew I wanted to keep the basic quilt design, there a number of ways I could re-draw the layout in order to make the quilt easier to construct.
The first step I made was altering the center of the quilt. In the directions, the center part of this quilt which as the alphabet on it is a 34-inch x 44-inch fabric rectangle (unfinished). I immediately made three design decisions:
- I wanted to find a way to break this area into quilt squares. I didn’t mind if the center of my quilt was a little larger than the one in the book, but I couldn’t reduce it. If it was smaller, the letters would look too crowded.
- I wanted to keep the six rows of letters in the original pattern but did not want to add numbers or words to take up the additional space. I would keep the negative space (just add rectangles of fabric to make up the additional inches needed to make the rows even out) that Bea Oglesby designed.
- While I liked the applique design of curvy vines and leaves, I would add additional flowers. To keep with some of the original designs of the other quilts in Alphabet Quilts Letters for All Ages, I would pull some of Ms. Oglesby’s flowers in her floral ABC quilts.
With those decisions made, I opened up EQ8 and started working. Much to my amazement (and delight), EQ had alphabet blocks! These were pieced, but having these available helped me visualize how my quilt would work.
After playing with block size and placement, I decided that 10-inch finished blocks would work best. And here’s why…
Take a look at some of the Spencerian letters I copied:
The designs are not uniform. Some letters are taller than others (all of the letters are capitals) and some are much wider, as their loops and lines stretch out for inches. By planning for my quilt blocks to be 10-inches finished, the blocks would have plenty of room between each letter without looking crowded. This additional space also meant if the letters looked like they had too much room between each other, I could trim them down another half inch or so. And by allowing for 10-inch finished blocks, this meant my quilt center would be roughly 50-inches x 60-inches.
Now I had to decide about color and fabric. I’ve always liked green and purple together, but never took the opportunity to put just the two of them in a quilt. Well, since there’s no time like the present, I decided to go with a mint-y, light green for the background and a dark purple for the letters. After a bit of searching, I decided to go with Painter’s Palette from Pineapple Fabrics. I like this line for a couple of reasons. First, the colors are consistent. If you order any fabric from Painter’s Palette, the fabric you receive will be the exact, same color which is on the swatch card. Even better, if you find you’re running short and need to reorder several months down the road, the fabric will still be the exact same color you originally used. Second, this fabric line has a wonderful hand. It is soft and easy to handle. It’s firm enough to stand up to the abuse of machine applique, yet it’s easy to needle if you want to use it for any kind of hand sewing. After some comparing, I decided on Agave for the green background and Amethyst for the purple.
Normally, if you want 10-inch finished squares, you’ll need to cut the fabric into 10 ½-inch blocks in order to give you a ¼-inch seam allowance on all four sides. However, since machine applique is in the plans, and that can take up a bit of additional fabric, I cut my squares 11-inches. This way I knew I would have plenty of margin for error. I spent two days tracing the reverse images of the letters onto Soft Fuse. Then I pressed the letters onto my purple fabric and cut them out. Since the Spencerian alphabet is loopy and can run the gamut from thick to thin, I cut one letter out at a time, peeled the paper backing off, centered it on the green square and pressed it into place.
Now it was time to put the open-toe foot on Dolly and get started on the applique. Since this was raw edge applique, I knew I needed a thicker thread to encase the edges of the letters as completely as I could. I decided on this 50-weight, 2-ply Aurifil thread.
I liked the sheen, which would stand out nicely on the purple fabric, and the 2-plies would pretty much ensure the fabric edges were completely covered. I also had to remember some parts of the Spencerian letters were thin. I needed a thin enough thread I could lower the stitch length on and it wouldn’t bunch up but yet thick enough to protect from fraying. The Aurifil 50-weight, 2-ply fit the bill. I am also using these:
For the first time. These sewing machine needles are the Schmetz Super Nonstick Needles (90/14). The nonstick needles are supposed to resist some of the stickiness which fusible webbing can leave on the shaft. They get good reviews on some of the quilting blogs and websites I follow, so I’m looking forward to sewing with them. Another action I will take is to alter my stitch length and width if I need to, depending on what part of the letter I’m appliqueing. For instance, this part of the letter F
Will need a short stitch length. A larger one would overwhelm it. But this part of the same letter
Can stand up to a larger stitch length.
So why all the rambling on about an alphabet quilt? Well, for a couple of years now I’ve been handing out tidbits of information on how to take a quilt pattern or block and change it up to make it uniquely yours. Sometimes this process is as simple as reversing the light and dark placement of the block units. At other times, it gets more complicated, like it did in my alphabet quilt. What I really want to stress is don’t be afraid of the process. Honestly, there are very few quilting mistakes which can’t be rectified or at least altered to the point you can still make the quilt. Between my posts on gridding out blocks and all the handy-dandy formulas like the Golden Ratio and Quilter’s Cake I’ve given you, it’s not too difficult to change a pattern up or develop your own design. Early quilters figured things out for themselves. This allowed for originality. So should you. There are absolutely no reasons for any quilter to slavishly follow a pattern. Listen to what your heart and head are telling you about a quilt design. Sometimes your heart may know exactly how you want the quilt to look, and your head can tell you how to make it. You may be like me and take the “roots” of one design and then change the way you make it so it will be an easier and more enjoyable process. This is part of the journey of becoming a seasoned quilter and a quilter who is quite comfortable making at least a small part of every quilt they construct uniquely theirs.
Don’t be afraid to try. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. The only thing any quilter should be frightened of is not learning from their “errors.” There is a challenge in every quilt. It’s up to you to ascertain if the challenge will make you a better quilter or a bitter quilter. If the challenge would drive you nuts (kind of like English paper piecing does me), it’s much, much better to find an alternative way of constructing the block or even the entire quilt. Never let any pattern, technique, teacher, or quilt take away your joy in quilting. It’s just not worth it.
Until next week, Quilt On!
Love and Stitches,
Sherri and Sam