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Roll, Roll, Cotton Boll

Have you ever come across a quilt block which completely captivates you?  One that not only holds your attention, but makes you question its history and wonder how difficult it would be to construct it?  I’ve had several of these types of blocks cross my quilting journey, but the first one – and the one which still makes me stop and give it a second look – is this:

North Carolina Cotton Boll Quilt

The first time I saw this block was back in the early 2000’s when I attended a quilt bee at Hancock Fabrics.  A spin off from the earlier quilt classes Hancock’s offered, our group continued to meet despite the fact no “official” classes were held.  At the beginning of each year, we would peruse different quilt patterns and decide on one to make as a group.  One year, we chose this quilt pattern:

Which included this block.

Once glance at the block told me it would challenge me.  It had leaves and stems and was all curves and points.  There was no piecing involved – it was all applique.  Fortunately, it wasn’t the first block.  If it was, several of us may have run screaming for the hills.  However, the block – with all its challenges – fascinated me not only for the skill needed to make it, but also for its name:  Cotton Boll.

I made the block.  It’s in my Southern Album Quilt.  Since then, I’ve made other quilts, took other classes, and attended other bees.  I honestly hadn’t though much more about it until I was performing a little Googling research for my raw-edge applique series, and I saw it again.  Once more I was mesmerized.  And it didn’t take more than the click of a mouse and I fell down the rabbit hole of Cotton Boll quilts…and this time I’m taking you with me.

The Cotton Boll has a distinctive look.  There is really no other quilt block which looks like it.  This led me to believe (wrongly, I soon found out) it would be a fairly easy process to find lots of information about it.  You can imagine my surprised when I Googled Cotton Boll quilt block, I came up with this:

All pieced, no applique and it bore no relationship to the block I knew as Cotton Boll.  Thinking it had to be a mistake, I opened my EQ 8 software, which has Barbara Brackman’s Block Base.  I typed Cotton Boll into the quilt block search bar, and again, this is what I found.

Not one to doubt Barbara Brackman and her research, I figured it had to be me, mis-remembering the block I made years ago.  After a little searching, I found my Southern Album Quilt pattern book and flipped to the page with the block on it.  Sure enough, here’s what it said:

Well.  I had remembered correctly (Go Me!).  Where was the disconnect?  It’s easy to see why the pieced block was named Cotton Boll.

The block and an open cotton boll look a lot alike.  But this still didn’t explain the differences, nor did it help me find the block I was looking for.  I decided to do what I normally do when I’m looking for a quilt block and can’t find it.  I put out an APB to some quilty friends.  One of them led me further down the rabbit hole of Cotton Bolls.  A quilt with those exact blocks at one time was exhibited at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston Salem, North Carolina.  This museum is kind of like a warehouse for early Southern crafts.

For those of you who are not from North Carolina or may not have visited my wonderful state, Winston is not far from where I live in Jamestown.  As a matter of fact, this museum sits right outside of Old Salem (which is in Winston Salem).  Old Salem is North Carolina’s version of Williamsburg, but on a smaller scale.  I’ve been to the museum several times but had not seen the quilt there.  However, an email to them resulted in a positive reply.  Yes, the quilt had been displayed there.  No, the quilt was not there now.  And yes, the name of the quilt was Cotton Boll.  “However,” the email went on to state, “this block also has been called Chrysanthemum.  It was called Cotton Boll primarily in the South and most significantly in North Carolina.  It was a pretty popular pattern among the Quakers.”

Bingo.  At least I hadn’t imagined the whole Cotton Boll quilt enigma. And as of that moment, I was super-lucky in two aspects.  First, sitting on my bookshelf in my quilt studio was the book, North Carolina Quilts, which resulted from the NC Quilt Project in the mid-eighties. It surely had some information on the Cotton Boll I was looking for. Second, Guilford County has quite a few Quaker churches as well as a college.  Between these two resources, I felt I was sure to get an answer as to where this quilt block came from and why the appliqued version differed so drastically from the pieced one. 

And I did.  I learned there are three schools of thought about this block. 

  1. It’s really just a Chrysanthemum Block.  Quilters quilt what they know.  No doubt quilters all over America were familiar with this flower and decided at some point to make it into a quilt block. 
  2. It’s neither a Chrysanthemum nor Cotton Boll, it’s an Anthemion.  Anthemion is the ancient Greek word for flower.  Anthemions are depicted in furniture and architecture as this:

And this symbol was all over 19th Century furniture and architecture.  Since Cotton Boll quilts enjoyed popularity primarily between 1840 and 1860, this actually makes more sense than the first school of thought. 

3.  Did some quilter somewhere take a long, hard look at the Anthemion and decide it looks very much like an unopened cotton boll? 

Then they made the block and called it Cotton Boll.

Now let’s look at each school of thought and decide which one – if any – are true.  And my first point of research is always Google. 

When I Googled Chrysanthemum Quilt block, two pieces of information repeatedly showed up.  A quilt block like this:

Or fabric with Chrysanthemums on it.  None of the blocks returned in the search looked remotely like the Cotton Boll quilt I was looking for.  Even when I looked for antique Chrysanthemum quilts, nothing popped up which resembled the Cotton Boll.  Instead, this block showed up:

Which I’ve always known as Bride’s Bouquet or Cornucopia.  Assuming Barbara Brackman may be a better research option than Google on quilts, I typed Chrysanthemum in EQ8’s search bar and these blocks were returned.

None of which are my Cotton Boll.  However, when Cornucopia was searched, this block popped up.

I honestly think the first school of thought – that the cotton boll block is really the Chrysanthemum block – completely erroneous. 

Now onto the second school of thought:  The block is really Anthemion.  This isn’t quite as clear cut as the Chrysanthemum.  When Anthemion was searched, hundreds of images were returned.  The Anthemion was found in architecture, carpets, textiles, and jewelry.  There is no doubt that 19th century quilters were familiar with this symbol.  However, the only quilt which came up was one from Barbara Brackman’s blog about Cotton Boll quilts.  Likewise, when her block base was searched in EQ8, it returned no blocks by the name Anthemion.  So, the chances of this quilt block actually being the Anthemion block are slim to none.

However… I think I’d take the third school of thought – that quilters looked at the Anthemion and decided it looked like an unopened cotton boll – to the bank.  This seems the most likely and it sounds like something I would do. 

There were quite of few quilters in North Carolina who made this quilt – several of them from Randolph County.  All of these quilts registered with the North Carolina Quilt Project are only referred to as Cotton Boll Quilts. There are also a few Cotton Boll  quilts found in Minnesota.  Many of these are attributed to Quaker quilters.  There are several schools of thought on those Quaker Quilts, too, but that’s another blog for another day.  What is important is the consistency of all of the quilts’ appearances.  All of them are distinctive.  There are four bolls.  Their stems cross in the middle of the block.  The bolls are made of separate, curved leaves along the sides which point upwards.  At the top of the block there is a non-curved leaf, which may be larger in appearance than the ones on the side.  Sometimes the curved forms alternate color, with a few of them even appliqued with green fabric.  Occasionally the block will contain small circles, indicative of berries or buds.  Over time, the sharp points at the end of the curving leaves and top points softened into a curve, producing more flower-like blocks.  Some have pieced sashing and cornerstones.  Others have simple sashing and no cornerstones.  And a few have no sashing at all.

They all are challenging, allowing a quilter to show off his or her finest needle skills.  They are beautiful and distinct.  However, I have no memory whatsoever of any of my quilty friends making a contemporary version of this quilt.  The Cotton Boll may become one of those quilt patterns, while fondly remembered and beautiful in its antiquity, eventually fades into obscurity. 

I sincerely hope not.

Until Next Week, Make Your Quilt, Yours,

Sherri and Sam

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