Yesterday’s and Today’s Charm Quilts

This week’s blog topic is charm quilts.  While some of you may think we’re talking about these:

 And we are…later on in this blog.  However, technically and historically quilts made from these wonderful pre-cuts aren’t charm quilts.  So, what are charm quilts?

Well, they actually began with buttons.

From 1850 to 1870 it became very fashionable for young ladies to collect one-of-a-kind buttons.  Lots of buttons.  Hundreds of buttons.  A young woman would string all these buttons on a “charm string” with the hope she would meet her “Prince Charming” before there were 1,000 buttons on the string. 

Quilters took this idea and altered it to fit their fabric narrative.  It became very chic to make a quilt out of hundreds or thousand pieces of fabric, with no two pieces of material alike.  Quite often these were also called “Beggar Quilts” since the women making these quilts would ask their friends and relatives for pieces of fabric.  The US Postal Service became a vital part of these quilts and the lives of their quilters.  Packages of scraps were mailed across the country regularly, resulting in eagle-eyed quilters eagerly monitoring their mailboxes.

There were two loose rules concerning the quilts.  First, no two identical fabrics were allowed; and second, generally these were one patch quilts – only one style of block unit was used.  Sometimes hexagons were chosen (this one was pretty popular).  Skillful quilters could turn the hexagons into Tumbling Block units or stars.  Sometimes simple squares or rectangles were used.  Triangles and diamonds were also incorporated into these quilts. The four-patch quilt block was second in popularity to the hexagon, although sometimes you had to squint to recognize it.  Often the quilter would be picky about the fabric she begged or borrowed.  She would want as many lights as darks or mediums so when she pieced the quilt, a pattern would begin to show. 

Some charm quilt designers really bent the rules and used one consistent light throughout the quilt so a distinct pattern would show. The use of this single light fabric unified quilts and made all the colors play nicely together.   Most of the charm quilts were made from prints, although some quilters did use solids if needed. 

By the third quarter of the 19th century, fabric manufacturers had caught on to the Charm Quilt fervor.  They began to offer bundles of small scraps, with no two being exactly alike, for purchase.  But by the beginning of the twentieth century, the Charm Quilt’s popularity began to decline.  It was revived in the 1920’s-1930’s, when the Great Depression set in, and every scrap of fabric was used to make utility quilts.  It waned in popularity again in the 1940’s and onward as women entered the work force and quilting itself took a hit.  In the 1970’s, our Bicentennial revived interest in quilting and with the new-found fascination in the art, many old quilt patterns once again flourished, including Charm Quilts.

From the 1970’s to present, quilting itself has held steady in the number of quilters as well as its popularity.  When the Millennium was on the horizon, lots of quilters found the idea of making a Charm Quilt out of 2,000 unique fabrics just the challenge they were looking for.  While I didn’t do this myself (I was way too busy teaching school then to even think about undertaking this challenge), I personally know several quilters who did. 

By the year 2000, with quilting design software flourishing and  a wide variety of fabrics in almost every palette available, new patterns were developed, and these quilts were much more sophisticated than their late 19th century Charm Quilt counterparts. 

With the major rule of “no fabric can be used more than once”, I think lots of quilts which aren’t normally considered Charm Quilts can fall into this category. 

For instance, Dear Jane may be considered a Charm Quilt.  While the blocks and the border triangles are all different, a “true” Dear Jane never uses the same fabric more than once.  The same theory goes for a Dear Hannah Quilt and one of the many Farmer’s Wife quilts.  If a quilter makes a quilt and no fabric is used more than once (except for a consistent light), it falls in the category of Charm Quilt.

Today, the definition of a Charm Quilt gets a little foggy.  If a quilter mentions “Charm Quilt,” most of us (myself included), tend to think about these wonderful, little pre-cuts

And the quilts made from them.  Indeed, many of the patterns for these 5-inch and 2 ½-inch squares use the term charm quilt in the title. And technically, if no two fabrics are the same in these packets, it’s a true charm quilt.  So let’s take a look at these charm packs and see how easy they make any quilt’s construction.

Let me be upfront and tell you, I love these charm packs.  They give you one 5-inch or 2 ½-inch cut of most the fabrics in a line – the only fabric which may be left out is one in which the print is so large would lose its integrity is such a small space. 

If you’re thinking about using one of these to make bed-sized quilt, remember:

For 5-inch Charm Pack Quilts

456 5-inch squares or 11 charm packs for a full-sized quilt

480 5-inch squares or 12 charm packs for a queen-sized quilt

600 5-inch squares or 15 charm packs for a king-sized quilt

The largest quilt you can make with one 5-inch charm pack is 27-inches x 31 ½-inches.  The largest quilt you can make with two 5-inch charm packs is a 40-inch square quilt.  Of course if sashing and/or borders are added, the quilt will become larger.

If you have a quilt pattern you think would be 5-inch charm pack friendly, it’s super-easy to figure out how many 5-inch squares you may need.  Simply divide the length and width of the quilt by the finished square – this means instead of dividing by 5, you’ll divide by 4 ½-inches, allowing for a ½-inch seam allowance taken in when piecing the quilt.  So, let’s say we want to make a quilt 45-inches wide by 62-inches long. 

For the width, simply divide 45 by 4 ½, which comes out to be 10. Now we deal with the length, which is 62-inches.  When we divide 62 by 4 ½, we get 13.77778, which we will round up to 14. 

Then we multiply 10 and 14, to come up with the number of 5-inch squares needed.  This gives us 140 (if you remember your geometry, we just used the formula to find the area of a square or rectangle).  This doesn’t mean we need 140 charm packs.  Most charm packs contain 42 squares.  Divide 140 by 42 to get 3.333333, which we’ll round up to four.  We would need four 5-inch charm packs to make a quilt 45-inches wide by 62-inches long.  There are a couple of issues to keep in mind at this point.

  1.  Read the label on the charm pack do determine exactly how many squares are in it.  Once you determine the area of your quilt, it’s that number you divide by, not necessarily 42.  Most  charm packs have 42 squares, but not all of them.
  2. If you can’t find the number of charm packs you need, always remember you can add length and width to your quilt by incorporating sashing and borders.

Let’s take a look at the little guys now – the 2 ½-inch charm pack.  Sometimes these small packs are called mini-charms.  Moda calls them Candy.  I have to admit, after I first saw these in my LQS, I wondered what in the world anyone could make with these.  Pieces of fabric this small usually found their way into my circular file.  I didn’t even keep scraps this small in my applique bins.  However, I found out these mini-charms had lots of uses and were pretty cool pre-cuts.  First, let’s look how they fit into quilts. 

Admittedly, it would take a lot of these small squares to make a quilt – even a crib size – although a doll quilt or mini-quilt would work well with these.  But just to see how many packs of 2 ½-inch charms it would take to make a crib quilt (which is normally 36-inches wide by 46-inches long), we can apply the same area formula used with the 5-inch charms.  First, let’s figure out the finished size of the 2 ½-inch charm.  We do this by deducting ½-inch from the unfinished size (1/4-inch seam allowance on each side):  2 ½ – ½ = 2.

36-inches divided by 2-inches = 18

46-inches divided by 2-inches = 23

18 x 23 = 414

Like it’s larger counterpart, most mini-charms also have 42 squares (be sure to read the label to make sure).

414 divided by 42 = 9.857143 or 10 packs of the 2 ½-inch charms to make a crib quilt.

Also like its larger counterpart, you can add sashing and borders to add to the length and width. However, at this point, you gotta be thinking, “If I have to add sashing and borders to a quilt made solely from mini-charms, they’ll have to be small, too.”

And that is true.  To stay in proportion, both the borders and sashing would have to narrow.

What I have found these small squares are great for is block units.  Many, many quilt patterns call for 2 ½-inch squares. If they’re incorporated into a scrappy quilt, you’ve reduced the cutting time.  They are also wonderful to use in Cathedral Quilts as the center color and perfect for Postage Stamp Quilts.  And if the sashing in your quilt is 2 ½-inches unfinished, a pack of the mini-charms would make great cornerstones.

There is an additional use for both of these charm packs in my quilting world. I use them a precursor to large yardage orders. As much as I love my LQS, sometimes I have to order fabric off the internet.  If I must order significant yardage, and especially if what I order needs to coordinate with fabric I already have or harmonize with a current décor, and the mini-charms or 5-inch charms are available in the fabric line I need, I will order the charms first.  Fabric colors are often altered by web pages and computer screens.  When I have the charms in hand, I can accurately decide if the fabric will work.  If it doesn’t, I’m only out a few dollars verses the perhaps hundreds of dollars I would have spent for yardage.

Of course, now the question is what do I do with these charm packs once I’ve ordered yardage?  If they can’t be incorporated into the blocks themselves, I can use them in the borders or perhaps the applique, if the quilt has applique in it.  But my favorite way to use them is this:

These wonderful charm packs are available in all one solid color.  I can order a pack of white or another neutral, match those up with my other charms and make half-square triangles.  I really enjoy doing this.  After a difficult week in the office, Friday nights with a glass or two of wine, some mindless sewing and Netflix binging are just what I need.  Once I get all the HSTs made, I can arrange them into quilt squares (the number of different quilt squares which can be made from HSTs is nearly endless).  I can sew all of these together in rows and make a small quilt which I can send to one of the charities I sew for.

I hope this blog has done one of two things (but hopefully both).  First, challenge you to make a “true” charm quilt at some point during your quilting career.  This is a great way to organize your stash or arrange fabric swaps with quilty friends.  Second, I hope it allows you to see the potential of “today’s” charm quilts with pre-cuts.  The math isn’t hard, and it allows for a lot of creative potential.


I am sad to tell you, this will be the last week my blog will be signed by Sam and me. Sam went over the Rainbow Bridge at 1:46 p.m. on June 17, 2022. The weekend prior, I went to the mountains with the grand darlings for one night. As soon as I returned on Saturday, he began to go down hill pretty quickly.

Sam was 22 years-old, which in human years equals 154. He just celebrated his 22nd birthday April 15. I’ve had three cats in my lifetime and he was absolutely the smartest of the three. His routine began at 5:30 a.m. He would meow to be let out of my bedroom to use his litterbox. Around 6, he’d amble back in and meow for me to get up and feed him. If I didn’t budge by 6:30, he’d get louder. Whatever room I was in, he wasn’t far. And if anyone walked into the kitchen, he’d stalk them in there and stare a hole through the cabinet which held his treats until you gave him some.

By 9:30 p.m., he was staring me down in my studio, because that was our “couch time.” I’d turn off my machine, stop whatever I was doing, and we’d park ourselves on the couch for an hour, watching television and eating one last snack before bed — usually yogurt. I’d open a container and give him a couple of teaspoons in a separate dish.

He wasn’t much of a mouser, but in all honesty, we didn’t have many mice. He did love a good steak and shrimp, but wouldn’t turn his nose up at a nice piece of poached chicken, either. I hope, if animals do go to heaven, Scooter and Garfield have met him there. I hope all three have all the catnip they can deal with.

Sam’s blankets are put up, his bowls are washed and stored. His food has been donated to the local animal shelter.

But the pawprints on my heart will never be erased.

Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam

9 replies on “Yesterday’s and Today’s Charm Quilts”

Oh Sherri, I am so sorry to hear of Sam’s passing. I know he was a great quilting buddy and beloved family member. Just know he’ll be with your other fur babies and will be watching over you.

Reading your blog made me long to do some quilting— it has been a long time. It also made my heart squeeze for your loss of Sam. We lost our Mittens a year ago and it was a pretty deep grief –especially for Ric. I would love to talk anytime you have time.

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