Are There Quilts Which Set Standards?

I love quilts.

That, folks, is no secret.  I love making quilts, looking at quilts, and reading about quilts.  I was perusing a new book about quilts (or at least new to me) the other night when a phrase caught my eye and made me pause.  The author was writing about Baltimore Album Quilts and stated, “We know that these quilts set the standards for all other quilts.” 

I puzzled over this for a few minutes.  It’s not that I necessarily completely disagree with this statement.  I’m just not so sure quilt standards are that cut and dry.  Plus, the Baltimore Albums, as lovely and intricate as they are, can only boast of being a particular genre of quilts, and one which was relatively short-lived.  This started me thinking – what quilts have set the standards of quilts and quilters?  Is there only one or are there many?  And even more important, what exactly are these “standards?” 

Thus I began researching this blog.  I googled quilting standards and only came up with quilt sizes.  I grabbed some of my quilt history and technique books off my shelves and turned to the back, searching for any content dealing with quilt standards. 


In this blog, I want to discuss the quilts which set some standards for us quilters.  The ones we return to again and again for inspiration and comfort.  Please note this blog is my opinion.   I don’t own the right to dictate to anyone what makes a good quilt and what doesn’t.  Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder and what may be important to me may not mean beans to you.  So don’t get your quilting thread in a twist if you don’t agree with my choices (trust me, I won’t).  What I do hope this blog does is open up some discussions about quilts – which ones are important historically and which ones are important for technique. 

For this discussion, I will divide quilts into two categories:  Those quilts which are important due to their technique, and those quilts which hold historical significance.  Those technique-laden quilts promote a specific quilting skill.  They introduce the technique and then gradually push it to near perfection.  However, it’s the introductory quilts which are more important to me.   If the quilt can’t make the technique seem simple enough for anyone to master, then as intricate as the quilt is, it isn’t significant.  We can’t master a quilting skill set if we start out in the deep end of the pool.  We start swimming in the shallow part first, and then jump off the high dive.  And in my quilt world, quilts are divided into two different techniques:  applique and piecing.

Log Cabin Quilt
Grandmother’s Flower Garden

Two quilts come to mind when I think about important pieced quilts:  Log Cabin and Grandmother’s Flower Garden.  Both of these are old quilt blocks, with the Log Cabin block showing up on Egyptian mummies (they were painted on the sarcophagus, not sewn into the wrapping).  This block has been found depicted by some method in almost every country.  The techniques may vary just a bit, but the Log Cabin block is probably the most well-known quilt block ever.  While it sets no standards for size – the logs in the block can be wide or narrow – the setup has remained the same.  Rotating fabric strips around a square center which is traditionally made of yellow or red fabric to symbolize a fireplace. Variations abound and layouts are limitless, but the block teaches the importance of straight cutting and consistent seam allowances.  The log cabin block is taught in more beginning quilt classes than I can count, and these blocks often make up a quilter’s first quilt (it did mine).  Thinking about a Log Cabin Quilt universally conjures up feelings of home, warmth, and coziness. 

While the Grandmother’s Flower Garden quilt pattern isn’t quite as old as the Log Cabin, hexagon-shaped patches (“hexies”) have shown up for centuries in tiles and mosaics.  Once it was transposed into a quilting pattern, it was called Honeycomb, Flower Garden, Mosaic, Six-Sided Patchwork, French Rose Garden, and French Bouquet.  The pattern made its debut around 1770 in Godey’s Ladies Book.  Not quite as ancient as the Log Cabin images on mummies, but still pretty old. Most (not all) Grandmother’s Flower Gardens are hand pieced.  This quilt is significant to me for several reasons.  First it promotes the technique of hand sewing.  While long ago this was the way many quilts were made (until the introduction of the sewing machine), most of these quilts still are hand pieced.  Second, this may be the first quilt which, when its name is mentioned, the majority of people – even non-quilters – can immediately call to mind what the quilt looks like.  Why is this important?  It’s the quilt which levels the knowledge playground.  Mention Grandmother’s Flower Garden and nearly everyone knows exactly what type of quilt you’re talking about.  Third, this quilt ups the hand piecing game.  A Log Cabin, or any other quilt made of straight strips, squares, or rectangles, is hand pieced pretty easily.  Grandmother’s Flower Garden takes a bit more of a skill set.  You’re working with a slight bias.  There are points which must match and there are set-in “joiners” in some of the quilts.  Yes, it’s straight stitching on an angle, but there’s a lot of other issues you must contend with.  However, master hand piecing this block and you should be able to tackle hand piecing anything else. 

Broidery Perse Crib Quilt

Applique quilts are harder for me to nail down, because I love these quilts.  The whole applique category got started with Broidery Perse quilts.  Women took fabric panels and cut them apart, then carefully turned the raw edges under as they hand sewed them to a background fabric or used a fine buttonhole stitch against a raw edge.  For a while these quilts were wildly popular, and then applique’s popularity waxed and waned until the 1930’s when Marie Webster introduced this little girl to our quilting world.

We know her as Sunbonnet Sue (although historically her real name is Molly).  As sweet as she is, this is the quilt which brought applique front and center again with quilters.  Marie Webster “borrowed” Bertha Corbett’s image of the bonnet bedecked Miss and put her on a quilt during a time when Sue was at the height of her popularity.  Sunbonnet Sue pushed applique quilts into a realm of popularity which has lasted until today.  Not only was this little girl popular, but she was also super easy to make.  The basic Sunbonnet Sue is only six pattern pieces – the bonnet, its band, Sue’s dress, the sleeve, the hand, and the shoe.  There are no deep V’s or points or tight curves.  The pattern is easy enough for any appliquer at any level to make.  I believe it’s because of this simplicity that applique became popular.  Sue wasn’t intimidating in the least, and from her sprung a new generation of applique artists to take the place of those who pretty much disappeared after Mary Evans and her Baltimore Album Quilts faded out of existence.

There you have it.  The four quilts which I think pushed quilting into the general public’s knowledge and taught beginning quilters techniques which they could base the rest of their quilting work on – Log Cabin, Grandmother’s Flower Garden, Broidery Perse, and Sunbonnet Sue.  I’d love to know if you agree with me about my choices.

Now let’s move into historically significant quilts.  For me these are the quilts which inspired both quilters and non-quilters to make quilts.  These are the quilts that make even the most seasoned quilter pause and wonder at the beauty and the technique.  Again, my choices are subjective to me, and again, I would love to know your opinion.

  1.  The Jane Stickle Quilt
Jane Stick Quilt at the Bennington Museum

Perhaps the Most Well-Known Quilt in the World

For my generation of quilters, the Jane Stickle Quilt (better known as “Dear Jane”) was the historical quilt which put many of us on the path to reproducing a historical masterpiece.  There are books, blogs, and software for those of us who want to make this quilt.  I’ve seen this quilt reproduced in everything from batiks to 1930’s prints to Civil War reproduction fabric.  I’ve seen folks take the 4 ½-inch blocks, enlarge them, and then set them on point.  There are Dear Jane’s with the traditional triangle and kite border and then there are those with custom borders designed by their maker.  It’s on my bucket list to make a quilty pilgrimage to the Bennington Museum in Vermont to see the actual quilt.  Jane Stickle’s quilt was brought to this museum over eighty years ago.  While the fabric is now fragile, the museum does display the quilt for a short time each year.  It goes on display right after Labor Day and then comes off the floor after Indigenous People’s Day.  According to the museum’s website, hundreds of folks come through the doors from all over the world to see this quilt. 

And if you’ve ever constructed this quilt, or even a few Jane blocks, you realize the process teaches you a great deal about lots of different quilt techniques.  I used paper piecing, reverse applique, regular applique, traditional piecing, and fussy cutting when I made my first Jane.  The great thing about this quilt is it really doesn’t come with any real directions.  You use the construction method you think will work best to make a block.  If you’re in doubt, there are more than enough resources on the web to help you figure it out.  Plus the blocks can be hand pieced or machine pieced.  So many options in this quilt.

For me, the Jane Stickle Quilt is one of the historical standards due to the fact it prompted a new generation of quilters to begin reproducing historically significant quilts.  If you’ve read any of my blogs on quilt history, you may remember quilters such as Rose Kretsinger, Mary Shafer, and Marie Webster believed it was important for quilters to remake antique quilts so the patterns would not be lost to history.  Dear Jane spurred my generation of quilters to pick up the needle and repeat the process.  From this masterpiece of piecing and applique have sprung quilt patterns and groups for the Caswell Quilt, the 1718 Coverlet, Baltimore Albums and the Mountain Mist Quilts.  Added plus for a Dear Jane – it packs a good handful of different techniques. 

2.  Harriett Powers Bible Quilt

The Quilt That Caused a Revolt

This quilt was constructed about 1886 by Harriet Powers.  This African American Farm woman of Clarke County, Georgia exhibited the quilt at the Athens Cotton Fair, and it caught the eye of Jennie Smith.  The quilt captivated Smith, who later wrote, “I have spent my whole life in the South, and am perfectly familiar with thirty patterns of quilts, but I have never seen such an original design and never a living creature portrayed in patchwork…The scenes on the quilt were biblical and I was fascinated.  I offered to buy it, but it was not for sale at any price.” 

Four years later, Harriet Powers and her husband suffered some financial setbacks.  Her husband urged her to look up Jennie Smith and see if she was still interested in purchasing the quilt.  Smith was, but she had also fallen on hard times and could not give Harriet the $10 requested for the quilt.  She could only offer $5.  Again, Harriet’s husband encouraged her to take the money.  Harriet agreed and delivered the quilt to Jennie in a clean flour sack enveloped in a clean crocus sack.  However, before Harriet turned over her precious creation, she explained the eleven panels to Jennie.  Briefly the subjects are Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a continuation of Paradise with Eve and a son, Satan amidst the seven stars, Cain killing his brother Abel, Cain goes to the land of Nod to get a wife, Jacob’s dream, the baptism of Christ, the Crucifixion, Judas Iscariot and the thirty pieces of silver, the Last Supper, and the Holy Family.

Eventually Harriet Powers quilt came to live in the Smithsonian.  It’s rarely, if ever, on display due to its fragility.  However, in 1992 this wonderful quilt became the touchstone of controversy which rallied thousands of quilters.  In 1992, the Spiegel catalog (remember Spiegel?) featured handmade copies of historic 19th century quilts from the Smithsonian Collection.  The Smithsonian had licensed the reproductions to American Pacific Enterprises, Inc., to generate needed revenues.  There were four quilts which received this licensure:  the 1851 Bride’s Quilt, the 1830 Great Seal of the United States quilt, the 1850 quilt called Sunburst, and the beloved 1886 Bible Quilt by Harriet Powers.  The quilts were to be stitched in China. 

Quilters revolted in an uproar.  Some quilters felt the reproductions would “compromise their provenance and create confusion about their [the quilts’] origins.”  Others argued the Smithsonian should have contacted American quilters to stitch the reproductions, not folks overseas.  Some feared the quality of the Chinese reproductions might be sub-par and as a result, negatively affect the market for American-made quilts.  Some quilters wanted the quilts to be clearly labeled “Made in China.”  Others wondered why the Smithsonian would have reproductions made in China when the US was running a $12.7 billion trade deficit at the time with this country.  And still other forward-thinking quilters wondered if other museums which collected quilters’ works would license their creations without permission in the future.

Thousands of quilters protested at the doors of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.  They also telephoned and hand-delivered petitions signed by thousands of other quilters to their Congressional Representatives.  The National Quilting Association faxed its official position paper to its member chapters requesting action.  Smithsonian officials finally did meet with quilters to try to understand their viewpoints.  Some concessions were made – one was that the Smithsonian would ensure its name and copyright year (1992) were printed on each reproduced quilt. 

Facts gleaned from the New York Times and the Washington Post offer a few tidbits of info about the controversial quilt reproductions:

  • Each of the quilts took 50 hours of labor by three or four workers.
  • American textiles were used for the applique and Chinese-made cotton was used for batting and backing.
  • Each quilt was sewn by machine but quilted by hand.
  • Anticipated royalties during the three-year period were between $500,000 – $800,000.
  • American Pacific sold more than 23,000 copies of the four reproductions by March 1993.

Occasionally, if all the Ebay stars line up correctly, one can find a Harriet Powers reproduction Bible Quilt on there, including the 12-page Smithsonian Collection booklet with photos and descriptions of each of the four quilts and numbered Certificate of Registration card. 

To me, Harriet Powers quilt is historically significant in several ways.  It is no secret many of the quilts belonging to Southern households during the 1800’s were completely or partially made by slaves.  These enslaved women were usually given no credit for their artistic workmanship. Even though slavery was abolished in 1865, it still would have remained a rarity to have any quilt widely attributed to an African American artist.  To have such an early quilt with a clear provenance to Harriet Powers is indeed highly significant.  It gives credit where credit is due.

Secondly, the applique on the quilt represents people.  Most applique done during this era (and even now) is overwhelmingly floral.  The fact that actual people were depicted was not the norm.  And thirdly, over a hundred years after this quilt was constructed, it rallied thousands upon thousands of quilters together to protect its integrity and provenance.  This righteous anger made not only museum juggernauts like the Smithsonian pause before it blatantly reproduced the quilt, but it also issued a warning shot to other entities to think twice before replicating any historical quilt without taking serious precautions. 

When I started writing this blog, I had no idea it would be so long. At this point, we’re over 2,500 words and I’ve found folks’ attention tends to wane when I produce much more than that. I have a total of eight quilts which I feel are historically significant. We’ll cover the other six next week.

Until then, Remember the Details Make the Difference!

Love and Stitches,



Good Lighting is Like Eating Cheesecake

Most of us take the lighting in our sewing area for granted.  I mean flick a switch and we have illumination.  What’s there to really think about?  We need light. Flick.  We have light.  Honestly what’s the big deal?

Well lighting is a big deal.  The correct lighting is a bit like having all the cheesecake you want with no calories to deal with the next day – or that horrible, bloated feeling.  Incorrect lighting is kind of like eating all the cheesecake and having to deal with all the calories and that horrible, bloated feeling.  The first part of this blog will explain lighting just a bit and the second part will show you some areas where you may want to change the lighting in your quilt room.

Humphrey Davy — the man who really invented the incandescent light bulb

We tend to laud Thomas Alva Edison for the invention of the light bulb.  Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but he didn’t invent it.  The incandescent light bulb was invented by an Englishman – Humphrey Davy.  What Edison did was improve this light bulb and then worked to make electricity affordable for everybody.   Over the years other scientists and engineers picked up Edison’s light bulb and continued to change and improve it.  Just shopping for light bulbs is overwhelming now.  An entire aisle at your local hardware store has hundreds of choices and wattages.  A search for light bulbs on Amazon yields over seven webpages of choices.  However, for us quilters, we’re dealing with more than wattages and colors of light.  We work with fabric and it’s important for us to see its hues, tints, and shades in their purest form.  What kind of lighting gives us the best odds of making sure we actually can do this?


Yup.  Sunshine.  This is why you may see quilters carry the fabric bolts of their choice to a window for their final audition.  I wrote another blog ( about that a while back.  So it’s important we  get lighting which mimics daylight in our studios.  Let’s take a short (but deep dive) on lighting before we talk about our studios (this is one of those rare times when my physics background and quilting mesh…)

Lighting is measured in color temperature (sometimes referred to as Kelvin) and CRI (Color Rendering Index).  It’s the CRI we’re most concerned about in our sewing area.  Lighting with poor CRI can make true purples appear red or true creams seem brown-ish tan.  CRI is rated on a scale from 0% to 100% to reference the accuracy of a light source (such as the light bulb in your lamp) in comparison to natural daylight – which is a true color hue.  The higher the CRI rating, the closer it is to true, natural daylight. 

This is not to say the Kelvin aspect of lighting isn’t important, too.  Kelvin is a unit of measurement used to describe the color temperature of a light source.  You use this all the time when purchasing light bulbs.  Soft White is 2700K – 3000K; Bright White is 3500K – 4100K; and Daylight is 5000k – 6500K.  For the more intimate areas of our homes, we may choose a soft white.  Study areas may require a bright white.  We probably would choose a daylight bulb for dressing and make up/hair areas.  For our quilting studio – really any type of art studio – we want bulbs which are between the 5000K and 6500K range with a high CRI rating (at least 90 – 95).  This is the best lighting you can have for a sewing area or fabric shop (which sadly, most fabric shops rely on the florescent-type lighting provided by their landlords). 

Years ago, before the development of LED lights, this type of lighting was expensive.  The fact LEDs are readily available, last longer, and are better than incandescent bulbs have pushed the prices down.  Some even come with dimming capabilities, which is super.  Personal Zone of Truth:  The best prices I have found – at least in my area of the country – for these light bulbs are on Amazon. 

I realize there may be some dissention from a few folks about now.  You may not buy all this illuminating information I’m shedding.  Let me throw this out.  How many of us use Ott lights?  Don’t you just love them?  Guess who has had this lighting concept nailed down for years?  That’s right.  Ott.  So this lighting construct has got to be valid – Ott has sold hundreds of thousands of lights and has hundreds of thousands of satisfied customers.

Now that I’ve explained what makes a good light bulb, where should these be placed in your quilting area? 

Overhead Lighting

Most of us inherit quilting spaces which already have established overhead lighting.  In my wildest dreams I win the lottery and can splurge on a quilting space I design.  Besides having electrical outlets in the floor, lots of shelves and built in drawers, custom pressing and cutting areas, I would have the overhead combination of 5000K – 6500K and 95 CRI either in LED tube lighting or recessed or flush mount lights.  However, I have not won the lottery and must work with what I have – which is two overhead light figures with two daylight bulbs in each.  One is directly over my primary sewing area and the other is over my long arm.  These are augmented by two east-facing windows and two sliding glass doors which lead out onto a deck. 

I imagine a lot of you are in a similar situation.  You’re working with the overhead lighting (also called “fill light”) which came with the room you quilt in.  There may not be a great deal you can do about it but do use LED Daylight Bulbs with the highest CRI index available.  If your room has windows, open the shades and let the sunshine in.  These two steps will allow you to maximize your fill light.  And if you haven’t used the Daylight LED Bulbs, you may be surprised at the difference they make. 

Task Lights

Task lights are those additional lights we use which are focused on specific areas of our quilting space.  Even if somehow you’re fortunate enough to snag custom overhead lighting, task lights are still important.  These reduce eye strain, headaches, and backaches.  Exactly where you place these lights and how many you have can be a personal decision, depending on how good the fill lighting is.  I will hit the most common areas of a quilt studio – which by coincidence are the exact places I have my task lights. 

Your Sewing Machine – Most sewing machines come with at least one light built into the mechanism.  The newer sewing machines have LED daylight lighting.  Older versions don’t.  Those use some type of incandescent bulb which will yellow with age and generally becomes very hot with extended sewing times.  The good news is there are lots of supplemental LED daylight lighting for sewing machines.  There are LED daylight strip lights which attach under the top of the machine head.  I have not used any of these, but I have quilting buddies who have, and I can tell you these have been met with varying degrees of success.  I suggest reading the reviews before purchasing any of these supplemental lights. 

Many sewing machine manufacturers have developed LED replacement bulbs for their older machine models.  They look similar to the old bulbs, but they’re LED daylight bulbs.  These are even available now for Singer Featherweights. 

Of course, there are always the smaller Ott lights which can be used beside your machine.  I used one for years behind my old Memory Craft 6000, until I updated to Big Red years ago. 

Your Cutting Area – Accurate cutting is one of the first steps which guarantees a successful quilt journey.  Rotary mats are marked well, but time and use cause these to fade a bit.  A daylight LED light on or beside your cutting area is a big help.  Personally, I like the kind I can adjust, so I have this light

Clamped to my cutting table.  I can move the head directly over the fabric if I need to fussy cut or move it to the side or up and down if it causes too much of a shadow on my rulers.  I can also dim it or brighten the light if needed.

Supplemental Lighting Over Your Primary Sewing Area – Even if your sewing machine has the best LED Daylight bulb available, realize that light is concentrated primarily over your harp and needle area.  Additional lighting (especially if you’re quilting) is very helpful and can reduce eye strain.  I use this light

This lamp has LED Daylight bulbs and clamps onto the front of my sewing table.  This allows the light to “puddle” exactly in the area I’m working on.  This is valuable not only if I’m quilting, but also if I am working with dark colors.  I can dim or brighten this light as needed.  I do like that it’s longer than my sewing machine, which means the light “puddle” covers the entire area that I’m working with. 

Your Pressing Area – This one may catch you by surprise, as lighting the pressing area may not have crossed your mind.  However, the “Holy Trinity” of accuracy is cutting, consistent seam allowances, and pressing.  It’s important you’re able to really see what you’re pressing.  I have a large pressing area (ironing board) near my cutting table, so I can swing the light I use on the table over to the ironing board.  However, I also have a smaller pressing area near my sewing machine, which I use when I’m piecing and machine appliqueing.  I have this little Ott light

That I clamp onto this pressing area.  It has a goose neck, so it’s adjustable and a clothespin clamp, which means it’s super-easy to move.  When I was using Big Red, I often clamped this machine to the top of her for additional light.  If you applique via freezer paper or Apliquick, this light is great to have in your pressing/gluing area.  You can really see what you’re doing. 

Those are the task lights recommended for a sewing area.  Ideally, between your fill lights and the task lights, your studio is evenly lit with concentrated illumination in important areas. 

I would also add these recommendations.

  1.  If you sew anywhere other than your studio, make sure you have supplemental lighting.  Specifically, if you’re like a lot of us and hand sew while you’re watching television in another area of the house, make sure you have some additional lighting other than the overhead fill light.  I have an Ott light with a magnifier my DH gave me for Christmas.   It works wonderfully.
  2. If you take your sewing with you when you travel, or you like sewing bees, or you attend workshops, travel lights are great to have.  Outside your studio, you can’t guarantee how good (or bad) the lighting may be.  Having a light you can count on is priceless.  A few years ago I received this Ott light for Christmas

It’s super convenient because it has compartments in the base you can store needles, beeswax, scissors, and small fabric pieces in.   

I also have this light, which is a recent purchase. 

This light has LED Daylight bulbs and is chargeable – once charged it lasts for several hours before needing a re-charge.  It folds flat and it, its electrical plug head, and charging cord fit neatly in its storage case.  It is surprisingly heavy, so be careful if you pitch it into your sewing bag and then pick the bag up. 

There are literally hundreds of options for portable lighting.  Read the reviews carefully and ask your quilting buddies what they use, which ones are their favorites, and how much they cost.  Ott lights are the most expensive, but they have always received stellar reviews, have excellent customer service, and last forever.  However, with the flood of good LEDs hitting the market (I have seen decent LED portables at dollar stores), they may have to lower their costs.  Of course, Otts are available at Joanne’s, and you may opt to wait for a good coupon to offset the price.  Minimally, you may want to replace your current light bulbs with Daylights.

I hope this blog has “illuminated” the importance of good lighting in your quilting space.  Until we win the lottery so we can design our own custom quilt studio, it’s helpful to know how to best use what we have. 

Until Next Week, Remember the Details Make the Difference (even in lighting!)

Love and Stitches,



Eating a Quilty Elephant (or How to Gain Quilting Confidence)

We’ve all been there.

You know the spot…

The place where we gaze at a quilt or quilt pattern and we’re just in awe.  It’s beautiful and it speaks to us, and only one thought goes through our head:

I have to make this quilt.  I must make this quilt.

So we look at it more closely.  If it’s a pattern, we may find ourselves pulling out the directions and reading them.  If it’s an actual quilt, we may look at it as closely as we’re allowed, trying to reason out how it was constructed and what techniques are used.  If it’s a picture, we summon Google to our rescue, investigating the name, if there’s a pattern available, or how the maker constructed it.  Then at the end of all this research, come away with this conclusion:  I can’t make this quilt.  It’s too hard.  I don’t have the skill set.

Well, if you think this is one of those blogs that’s sunshine and unicorns and I’m going to tell you to just jump in with both feet and give it try, you’re wrong.  This blog won’t do that.  If I told you to go ahead and begin constructing a quilt you’re not quite ready to make, I would be doing you a horrible disservice.  Chances are, you would give up on it (and me) before long and toss the quilt and perhaps quilting itself, in the circular file (trashcan).  What this blog will do is tell you at some point you will be able to make that quilt.  Just give yourself time.  What you need to do is build your confidence and skill sets as a quilter before you begin cutting out this quilt you want so badly to construct.

The first step you must take to become a confident quilter is kiss the idea of perfection good-bye.  No quilt is ever perfect.  No quilt you make will be perfect.  No quilt I make will ever be perfect (believe me, I can point out every error in every quilt I ever made).  In a way this is a difficult thing to do.  We work so hard to make sure all the little details are just right – corners meet, points aren’t chopped off, all of our cutting is accurate – it’s not easy to let go of the fact  even if we are contentious in every facet, there will still be mistakes.  However, on the other hand, it’s also very freeing.  If you chop off the tips of a few flying geese blocks, it is helpful to realize other quilters have done the exact same thing.  It’s also comforting to know that someone standing six feet away from your quilt won’t notice three of your geese have blunted beaks. 

After you’ve kissed perfection good-bye, it’s time to eat the elephant.  Remember the old joke – how do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time.  It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you’re making any quilt – even more so if it’s a quilt you’re struggling with a bit.  Try not to look at the whole thing – don’t view all the instructions as one huge unit.  Only deal with the step you’re on at the time.  Yes, I know I’ve told you one of the very first actions to take before cutting out your quilt is to read the directions through until the end.  Then read them again and mark them up.  And I stand by this.  But once your quilt is cut out, organized, bagged and tagged, work through one step at a time.  Don’t worry about step 10 when you’re on step 1.  Get through the first step successfully, and then the second.  By the time you get to the part of the quilt you’re most concerned about, your quilting confidence will allow you to work your way through that step.  Plus, by the time you’re there, the quilt instructions may make a lot more sense to you. 

The same process applies if you’re working on a quilt you don’t have a pattern for.  Let me throw in a personal experience.  As I was reading a book on Mary Shafer and her quilts, I saw a picture of her quilt Flowering Almond.

I fell in love with this quilt.  The colors drew me in, and I knew I wanted to make it.  So before long, I Googled the quilt name and my search returned lots of images, but no pattern nor even a block I could break down into units.  I had to view the quilt and find out where the blocks began and ended.  Then I had to break the block down into units.  It’s an applique quilt, so I couldn’t define units like four-patch or flying geese.  I had to look at the block and determine where else I could pull in those applique shapes.  Eventually I found the same shapes or similar ones in other applique patterns.  Then it was just a matter of deciding how big I wanted my blocks, if I wanted to use the same border treatment, and how many of each applique piece I needed.  It’s all one step at a time, and don’t view the whole quilt at once.  Just like eating an elephant – one bite at a time. 

With perfection and the elephant behind us, now it’s time to take baby steps.  And these baby steps are important to take because they walk us out of our comfort zone.  The third process you can take to build your quilting confidence is to start making quilts just slightly out of your comfort zone.  Notice I didn’t say waaaaayyyyy out of your comfort zone.  No.  Just slightly.  Again, let me throw in some personal experience.  When I teach beginner quilters, the first block we tackle is a four patch.  This is one of the basic – if not THE basic – quilt blocks.  It’s versatile.  It can work as a block unit or a block unto itself.  I can teach accurate cutting, strip pieces, nested seams, and squaring up, all in this simple little block.  I can then take this block, make it the center of an economy block, set them in rows with sashing and add a border.

The next class I teach is Confident Beginners.  We graduate to a nine-patch, use those as the center of a star block, set those on point, and then teach setting triangles and mitered borders.  The second class — Confident Beginners – is just a bit harder than the first class.  It pushes those new quilters out of their comfort zone just a tad.  Enough for them to learn some new skills, but not enough to overwhelm them.  As you pick and choose the quilts you want to make, you may want to re-examine the patterns.  While it’s comforting and less stressful to make simple patterns (and let’s face it, we all have times when we need mindless sewing to get us over the demands of the day), it’s nice to have a bit of a challenge to deal with, too.  I wouldn’t jump from a beginner’s pattern to an advanced one, but I would advise a pattern labeled “Confident Beginner” or “Intermediate.”  As you successfully tackle new techniques or more difficult blocks, your quilting confidence will grow. 

Classes will also help build your quilting confidence.  While it’s true I often take a class in something I’m pretty proficient in just because I like the teacher or have several friends in the class, most of the time it’s because I want to learn a new technique or become more skillful in one.  Classes help you grow in a couple of different ways.  First (and most obviously), they teach you something new.  You’re enrolled in the class to master another technique or block or quilt.  You may have been reluctant to try it on your own, but with some help and demonstrations, you will come away knowing exactly how to make that block or quilt or execute that skill set.  Second, you may make some new quilting friends.  This is great, because I have learned so much from my quilting buddies.  They are my “go-to” for advice, knowledge, and opinions.  Third, there’ll be a lot of quilting knowledge handed off which has nothing to do with the class itself.  For instance, a year ago I took a long arm class with a well-known teacher.  We were learning how to quilt floral motifs, but in the middle of the demonstrations and hands-on exercises, she happened to mention the two colors of quilting thread she absolutely must have on hand at all times is dusty pink and pale yellow “because believe it or not, they blend with almost everything except black.”

Well.  I had never even considered that.  As soon as class was over, I hit up Superior Threads for a cone of each.  Three days later I loaded up my long arm with a practice sandwich made of a multi-colored print fabric and tried out each.  To my amazement, it worked.  I learned something new on two different levels and my confidence as a long arm quilter got a little better.

After you’ve gained experience as a quilter, try teaching what you know.  There’s nothing quite like seeing the light bulb go off in someone when they have grasped something new.  It’s addictive.  It taps the dopamine in your brain like almost nothing else.  Plus, before you teach someone, you have to make sure you really know and understand your subject matter, so teaching makes you review your skillset and reinforces it.  Teaching what you know to someone else and then watching them grasp it makes you feel super-good, and your confidence grow.  You don’t have to teach a class – teach a kid, teach a friend, teach a fellow quilter a trick you learned. 

Lastly – and this is most important – don’t let failure or fear of failure play with your mind.  Honestly, just don’t.  I’ve quilted for over 30 years, and I can say with all genuine frankness, there are very, very few quilting “errors” which can’t be fixed.  Just because you tried a new technique and it didn’t go so well the first time, don’t get discouraged.  The majority of us don’t get something right the first time we try it.  If a quilter is making technique look easy, it’s because he or she has performed that skill set lots and lots of times.    Keep practicing.  If one method doesn’t work, Google it.  You’ll be amazed at all the different ways of doing something.  Allow me to add one more personal experience.  I love to applique by hand.  Many of my fellow appliquers use silk thread.  I was never able to.  It kept sliding out of the eye of my needle.  Cotton thread didn’t do this, so for years 50 or 60 weight cotton thread was all I used in my applique.  However, I loved the way silk thread seemingly “melted” into the fabric and disappeared.  Then a quilting friend of mine showed me how to make a tiny knot with the silk thread at the eye of my needle.  It didn’t impede my stitching any, but it kept the thread from sliding out of the needle.  I had to look at another way of using the technique which worked for me.  At some point in your quilting journey, you will face similar challenges.  Find the technique which works for you.

Don’t let fear of failure freeze you out of trying something new.  What’s the worst that could happen?  You have to rip out a few stitches and start over?  Back up and try a different method?  Don’t let fear of failure paralyze your quilting.  Push forward.  As you garner success after success (both big and small) your confidence will grow, and you’ll know with certainty you can make the quilt you want the way you want to make it.

I hope this blog has shown you ways to build your confidence as a quilter.  Zone of Truth here – we all feel less than confident at times.  We’re all human.  Take the process one step at a time and trust it.  Your confidence will grow, and you’ll successfully tackle any quilt you want to make.

Until Next Week, Remember the Details Make the Difference!

Love and Stitches,



Publications and Quilting

If there have been three constants in quilting, it’s these:  fabric, patterns, and publications. I realized this as soon as I started quilting.  Fabric, patterns, magazines and books are seemingly always in constant supply.  And of the three, quilting publications are the most recent addition.

In many ways, today we have it super easy to learn about quilting.  Curious about a new technique?  There’s YouTube and blogs.  Want to get a glimpse of the latest fabrics?  Well, there are quilt magazines out there – both the kind published on paper and the e-versions.  What do they all have in common?  They’re clickable – decide what you want, find it, and with a click of the mouse it’s downloaded to a laptop, iPad, or phone.  There’s no waiting.  It’s instant quilting gratification.  Of course, it wasn’t always like this.  The internet had to be developed.  Electronic devices had to become affordable for everyone to access. 

That is true.  But what you may not know is how hard quilters worked to get to the point-click-download part.  Do you have any inkling of what went on behind the scenes to move us from the first quilting pattern in magazines to internet programs  such as The Quilt Show?  Truthfully, until I began researching the blog The Kansas Phenomena, I honestly had no idea.  Vaguely, on some level, I was aware of certain books and magazines and when they were published.  But there is so much more to it than I imagined.  So many people worked incredibly hard to get us here – to the point where there is more quilting information and history available than at any other time.  With this blog, I’d like to give you a rough timeline and mention the names behind this effort.

The Holy Trinity of Early Quilting Books

We have quilt books and magazines coming out our ears today.  Don’t want to buy them?  Chances are good your local library has a fine selection.  Don’t want hundreds of books taking up shelf space?  You’re in luck.  Many of these are available as an e-version and the patterns are in a separate file which can be downloaded as you need them.  However, prior to 1915, quilting books were nonexistent. But with the Arts and Crafts Revival pushing the interest in “home arts” it didn’t take long for publishing companies to figure out how they could cash in on this craze — books about quilts and quilting. Before long, we had what most quilt historians call “The Holy Trinity of Early Quilting Books.”  These were the best ones, the most well-written, easiest to understand, and the earliest of serious quilting publications.

Marie Webster

The first extensive book on the subject was written by Marie Webster.  Titled “Quilts: Their Story and How to Make Them,” it was published in 1915.  Marie Webster was an avid quilter who managed to make applique a high art as well as an accepted technique.  Along the way, she became a businesswoman, producing some of the earliest quilt kits and patterns.  Her book traces applique and quilting in the ancient world, medieval Europe, and early America. Twenty-four of Marie Webster’s own quilts are illustrated in color, with 60 additional black and white photos of historic quilts and needlework from the original editions, as well as photos from Marie Webster’s family album.

The book originally took two forms.  There was a blue cover book (center) which was a limited edition and a cream-colored one (right) which was the standard trade edition.  The one we’re most familiar with is on the left, and it is actually a 1990 reprint of the book by Rosalind Webster Perry – Marie Webster’s granddaughter.  Prior to writing the book, Marie had fourteen patterns published in Ladies Home Journal and her wildly successful quilting business (The Practical Patchwork Company) was growing rapidly.  It didn’t take long for Doubleday, Page, and Company publishers to knock at her door and request a book.  “Quilts: Their Story and How to Make Them,”  delves into quilt history, pattern names, and how to make a quilt.  It was the very first book to discuss quilt construction.

The reprint edition is still fairly readily available.  A quick Amazon search turned up a few hardback and paperback editions.  Thrift Books also has several copies.  It is 244 pages and if you’re interested in quilts pre-1930, you will want to add this book to your library.  If you’d like to read more about Marie Webster, you can go here:

“Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them”  is the second book.  Ruth Finley wrote this one and a few paragraphs about Ruth herself are worth going into (which I will shortly).  First published in 1929, this record of the most picturesque of all American folk arts is an enduring contribution to the study of women’s history. The first printing had 200 photographs of quilts, quilters, and diagrams.  “Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them,” was reprinted for the third time in 1990 and it added more pictures and diagrams as well as eight color plates. Barbara Brackman wrote the forward to the third edition.  This book is still widely available (used, of course). 

Ruth Finley

Now, back to Ruth Finley.  Born on September 25, 1885, her father was Dr. Leonidas Ebright who served as surgeon general of Ohio, an Ohio state representative, and Akron’s postmaster.  Her mother was Julia Bissell.  She was a graduate of Oberlin College, the first American college to grant degrees to women.  Ruth’s family had colonial roots dating back to 17th Century Connecticut, including two governors.  She used this pedigreed background to her advantage in her creative undertakings.  In 1902 she enrolled in Oberlin College, but only stayed one semester.  She transferred to Buchtel College (later the University of Akron), but only completed two additional semesters.  When she left Buchtel, she spent a year touring the western United States, writing stories and poems as she traveled.  By 1907, she began her career as a journalist.  She worked as various newspapers, first as an investigative reporter (she went undercover as Ann Adams to report on the harsh working conditions of women in factories and households) and then as an editor.  She met and married her husband – also a newspaper reporter – Emmet Finley in 1910. 

Ruth grew up with a knowledge of quilts through her family connections.  During her years as a newspaper writer and editor, she began to collect antique quilts.  From 1910 to 1919, as she traveled the country both for business and pleasure, she would look for quilts.  When certain quilts hanging on a clothesline caught her attention, she stopped at the farmhouse and asked for a drink of water.  With this simple introduction, she would inquire about the quilt(s) she was interested in.  She would ask about the name of the quilt and the story behind it.  Many times her offer to purchase the quilt was accepted.  From this, Ruth began to collect patchwork patterns, making diagrams and identifying them by name.   If more than one name was given to the same pattern, she recorded all the variants and included in her book the name she thought most appropriate. 

This meticulous research continued for several years, until she began writing Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them.  The writing process began in 1915 and ended in 1929 – a fourteen-year effort.  When the book was published in 1929, it included information about more than 300 quilt patterns and Ruth’s empathy for the women of the 19th Century was clearly evident throughout the book.

There is no doubt that Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them had a profound influence of designers of Ruth’s time period and those who came after.  Quilters such as Pine’ Eisfeller, Rose Kretsinger, and others drew their own patterns based on inspiration from the black and white pictures in the book.  However, throughout this entire research and writing process, Ruth Finley never put the first stitch in a quilt of her own.  She researched them, preserved the ones she purchased, and wrote about them extensively, but never made one.  She did design one, though.  In 1934 she designed a quilt in honor of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  The quilt design was published in Good Housekeeping.  Photographs and descriptions of the quilt portray it as “rectangular wreath of fantasy flowers appliqued in gorgeous bas-relief.”  A great variety of brilliant calicoes were used for the flowers on the wreath, which was placed against a background of black sateen.  The quilt was lined and corded with lipstick-red fabric. 

Ruth Finley’s last known writing was the start of her autobiography.  Fourteen typewritten pages, with penciled margin notes, are all that remain of it.  After a lingering illness, Ruth died in Glen Cove, Long Island, New York, on September 24, 1955, the day before her seventy-first birthday.  She was inducted into the Quilters Hall of Fame in 1979 – the year the first group of quilters were inducted. 

Ruth Finley’s Quilt in honor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt

The third book of this Holy Quilting Trinity is The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt

This book is written by Carrie Hall and Rose Kretsinger, with Kretsinger writing the section “The Art of Quilting and Quilting Designs.”  Carrie Hall wrote the rest of the book.  And unlike Ruth Finley, Carrie Hall sewed prolifically, claiming “I was born with a needle in my hand.”  We are forever indebted to Hall for her rich record of America’s early quilt heritage. 

Carrie Hall in Historical Red Moire Costume

Carrie Hall was born in Caledonia, Wisconsin on December 9, 1866, and attributed her mother for her love of books, desire for knowledge, and discriminating taste in fashion.  Her mother taught Carrie to sew and by the age of seven, Carrie had pieced a LeMoyne Star Quilt, which won first place in the county fair.  By ten, she was out-pacing adult sewers, winning ribbons and a subscription to Godey’s Lady’s Book. By the age of 23, she had moved to Leavenworth, Kansas and launched her career as a dressmaker.  Her business prospered, as she catered to the well-to-do, copying the styles from Paris and importing French fabrics to make her dresses with. 

It was after World War I that Carrie began making quilts.  As the quilt revival grew in the 1920’s, she created 16 quilts, including an original design she named Cross-Patch.  She was captivated by all the beautiful quilt patterns on the market, but realized she would never be able to make a quilt from each pattern.  As a sort of compromise, she decided to make a sample block of every known quilt pattern at the time.  Eventually, this massive undertaking yielded well over 800 blocks, along with dozens of scrapbooks filled with quilt related clippings. 

Carrie Hall’s Cross-Patch Quilt

By the late 1920’s, the availability of ready-made clothing caused her dressmaking business to decline.  Redirecting her life, Carrie became a quilt lecturer.  Dressed in a colonial costume of red moire’ trimmed with frilled net fichu and cuffs, she presented more than 80 quilt lectures, illustrated with her extensive quilt block collection, to women’s groups and at department stores.  The presentations were received with such enthusiasm that soon her friends were encouraging Carrie to write a book.  So, in 1935, Carrie, along with Rose Kretsinger, wrote The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt in America.  The book combined quilt history drawn from personal accounts, women’s magazines, and the scrapbooks in Carrie’s collection.  The photographs of Carrie Hall’s quilt blocks made it the first comprehensive index to quilt patterns, their names, and their histories.  First published in 1935, the book has been re-printed several times because it’s still popular due to its well-organized illustrations of more than 800 numbered blocks in traditional and early 20th century designs.  It does get a bit confusing when Hall mentions things like “the war.”  You have to bear in mind the book was written five years before the beginning of World War II, so “the war” means World War I.  Many quilt and books critics think The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt continues where Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them leaves off.  And it does seem to do this.

After completing her book on quilts, Carrie pursued other sewing-related business ventures, including a second book in 1938 titled From Hoopskirts to Nudity, which reviewed the fashion follies from 1866 to 1936.  Carrie’s fortunes rose and fell, but eventually she became financially stable again when she began producing a line playtime and character dolls of historical figures.  Fellow quilters (and Quilters Hall of Fame inductees) Florence Peto, Grace Snyder, and Bertha Stenge encouraged and supported her in this effort.  In January 1955, Carrie machine-pieced a Delectable Mountains quilt top for a special friend and a Nine Patch for a new baby.  These were the last two quilts she made.  She died at the age of 88, on July 8, 1955.  She was inducted into the Quilters Hall of Fame in 1985. In 1999, the University of Kansas Spencer Museum of Art, along with the American Quilters Society, republished Carrie Hall’s 800 quilt blocks in color.  They also included over 200 quilt patterns which could be made from the blocks, as well as assembly diagrams.  In many instances, this book is more difficult to find than Romance of the Patchwork Quilt.

Book by AQS and University of Kansas Spencer Museum of Art.

It’s important to keep in mind other quilt books were also published during this time.  However, these three were (and are) still the best and do a great job in tracing quilt history and construction.  All three of the books helped usher in the second Great Quilt Revival.  And as women purchased or borrowed them to read, three other publishing concepts were finding their footing in the quilt world:  Syndicated Quilting Columns, Quilting Newsletters, and Round Robins.

Just Who Were Laura Wheeler, Nancy Cabot, and Alice Brooks?

During the Thirties, many newspapers would publish a quilt block.  This was usually a line drawing of a block, with maybe a few rudimentary details.  The Kansas City Star newspaper was especially well-known for their quilt blocks.  Women would see the quilt block, read the few details, and then could either try to break down the block and make it themselves, or drop a few coins in an envelope, send it off, and receive the pattern via the US Postal System.  Most of the time, the construction directions were necessary, as many of the blocks were not designed by Laura Wheeler, Nancy Cabot, or Alice Brooks.  They were actually drawn by graphic artists with no quilting background – which rendered some of them downright impossible to construct.  The directions varied according to the complexity of the block.  Some of the patterns were good.  Others were confusing.  However, nearly all of them were attributed to one of the three women.  So just who were Laura Wheeler, Nancy Cabot, and Alice Brooks?

“Laura Wheeler”
“Nancy Cabot” I could not find a picture of “Alice Brooks.”

Figments of the publishers’ imagination.  That’s right.  They didn’t exist.  The actual face behind the women was a man named George Felleman Goldsmith, Jr.  He was the founder of Reader Mail, Inc., a service dealing with dress and needlework feature articles.  These were distributed throughout the United States, England, and Canada by King Features.  And how the distribution worked was nearly like a shell game.  The first group of patterns were published in 1928 and used the byline Laura Wheeler and Alice Brooks.  If a woman perusing a newspaper found a pattern she liked and it was attributed to one of these imaginary quilters, the woman could mail cash for the cost of a pattern (usually around 15 cents) to a New York City address and the pattern would be mailed to her.  There were several different post office boxes and at least eight different pattern house names listed for The Reader Service (at that time known as The Old Chelsea Station Needle Craft Service).  The addresses ran the gamut from Eighth Avenue, West 14th Street, West 17th Street, West 18th Street, and Sixth Avenue.  This allowed the company to advertise two or more feature patterns in the same newspaper.  Eventually the pseudonym Nancy Cabot had to be added, because there was no way two “women” could come up with all these patterns.

Actually there was a large group of individuals behind these syndicated patterns.  At least thirteen individuals (many of them women) served to develop the patterns, write the directions, take care of newspaper syndication, and the distribute the patterns to the folks who mailed in a dime.  And while the whole situation does sound like a shell game of Limited Liability Companies, the syndicated patterns linked quilters together across the United States and unified quilt block names.  These newspaper patterns solidified quilts such as Grandmother’s Flower Garden, Sunbonnet Sue, and Double Wedding Ring.  Prior to the publication of these blocks in the newspapers, they were known by many names.  Because the syndicators gave these blocks a name and that name was published across the country, those quilt block names were unified.  If someone mentions a Grandmother’s Flower Garden, you automatically know we’re talking about this block:

The same thing happened with other quilt blocks names.  While they may have many monikers, syndicated publications promoted their primary name. 

Syndication also provided the same pattern to hundreds of quilters in America, Britain, and Canada.  As hundreds of patterns were mailed out, hundreds of women found themselves making the same quilt.  The regionality of quilts somewhat faded as the universal popularity of some quilts pushed it out of the way.  Love it or hate it, these syndicated quilting columns and patterns were very successful and remained a feature in many newspapers until around 1962, when quilting’s popularity dipped a bit as women in large numbers entered the work force.  By 1967, they were almost totally absent from newspapers. 

Round Robins

When you mention the quilting term “Round Robin” to quilters today, it means a communal quilting event.  You make a center block and pass it off to a quilting friend.  They add borders to it and pass it off to another quilter.  This continues until everyone in your Round Robin Group has a chance to put a border on your quilt square and then returns it to you.

Early Round Robins had plenty to do with quilts but were nothing like today’s Round Robins.  From roughly the early sixties through the seventies, Round Robins were letters passed between quilters who shared patterns, thoughts, quilt research, and color palettes.  Sometimes if there were questions concerning construction, one of the quilters who had made the block in the past would include an actual quilt block in the correspondence.  However, the fact remains that a large chunk of what we know about quilt history is due to the United States Postal Service and these Round Robins.

Mary Schafer

One of the best-known Round Robin writers was Mary Schafer.  If you’ve never heard of her or read anything about her, I strongly recommend you read Mary Schafer:  American Quilt Maker by Gwen Marston.*  Mary Schafer, an unassuming woman from Michigan, was one of the people responsible for the modern American quilting revival in the seventies.  A prolific quilter (quilting from 1952 – 1995) creating hundreds of quilts, she also was a prolific letter writer/Round Robin leader.  During the heyday of these Round Robins, her address book read like a Who’s Who in American Quilt Making.  By the time the seventies rolled around, and our country was poised for another Quilt Revival, Mary and her friends had documented and verified oral quilt histories, block histories, and quilt scholarship.  Barbara Bannister, Mary Schaffer, Cuesta Benberry, Betty Harriman, Edna Ford, Florence Peto, Joy Craddock, and Delores Hinson not only wrote to each other about blocks and quilts, but also discussed what might be the next “big thing” on the quilt market.  In 1964, they predicted doll quilts would make a comeback, and sure enough, it happened. 

These women wrote detailed letters to each other, often including drawn diagrams of quilt blocks on onion skin paper (so as not to add too much weight to the letter).  These diagrams were often carefully shaded in with colored pencils to suggest a fabric palette.  The recipient of the letter and diagram would add her information and then send the letter on to the next person.  Sometimes these letters would only be written between two people, and sometimes more than two folks were involved.  These Round Robins forged strong friendships between quilters which lasted for years and eventually turned to phone calls and even visits.   Besides the women listed above, Maxine Teele, Lenice Bacon, Ruth Finley, Sally Garoutte, Joyce Gross, and Ruth Parr either participated in the Round Robins at one time or another or with singular correspondence with Mary Schafer.  Not only would these women exchange quilting knowledge and information, but they also exchanged antique fabrics.  All of these women enjoyed re-creating antique quilts and they deemed it important to use as many fabrics as possible from the era of the original quilt.

The one detail which cannot be ignored about these literary Round Robins was their quilt scholarship.  Often these Round Robins resulted in quilt histories we still use today.  Mary Schafer was the recipient of Betty Harriman’s unfinished quilts when Betty died.  Mary finished every one of those quilts, and now many of those dual-quilted treasures reside in museums and universities’ textile collections.  In turn, Mary Schafer gave Cuesta Benberry more than one hundred quilt blocks she constructed.  Cuesta donated the blocks to the Quilters Hall of Fame.  Eventually the bulk of Mary Schafer’s correspondence was donated to the Michigan State University Museum in 1998 for quilt research.**  And if there is any doubt about the importance of these Round Robins or the women behind them, note that six of them – Mary Schafer, Cuesta Benberry, Lenice Bacon, Florence Peto, Sally Garoutte, and Joyce Gross were inducted into the Quilters Hall of Fame.

Quilting Newsletters

In the midst of the Round Robins and syndicated quilting columns exists another source of quilting information – quilting newsletters.  Notice I didn’t say magazines.  Quilt magazines weren’t published until the seventies.  However, some enterprising quilters thought it would be great idea to have quilt blocks, quilt history, and questions from quilters all housed in a publication available for a small fee.  These weren’t the slick publications we’re used to now.  These newsletters bore only a few pages, printed on a traditional typewriter, and run through a mimeograph machine or printed at a shop.  The pages were stapled together, and it was mailed out to subscribers.  Relying heavily on manual labor, some of these were monthly publications and others were quarterly.  And while there were several, we will discuss the four up-and-comers, and then the one newsletter who spearheaded the quilt magazines we’re so used to today. 

Aunt Kate’s Quilting Bee – This publication was begun in 1962 by Glenna Boyd (1919-2006) and published until 1980. Printed on glossy paper with some fuzzy black and white photographs, this publication gives us a wonderful look at our quilting heritage.  Aunt Kate also re-published patterns from the 1920’s and 1930’s, crocheted edges from a book originally published in 1916, contemporary apron and potholder patterns as well as original quilt block patterns from her readers. 

With this little newsletter, it was all about the quilt blocks.  No slick advertising or guest quilters.  Most of the quilts discussed were comprised of complex quilt blocks meant to be hand pieced.  If you were lucky enough to be published in Aunt Kate’s, you could earn up to $9 – and that’s if you completed all the required elements in good order. 

Subscribers were expected to create templates from the printed instructions and put those into labeled folders or large envelopes for future use.  There was a section in every issue where women asked for other block patterns to be swapped or purchased.  Blocks by Nancy Cabot were in high demand (“Nancy Cabot” was published in the Chicago Tribune in the 1930’s and in two pamphlets of block patterns in 1934 and 1935).  There was also a section in the newsletter where subscribers wrote in looking for pen pals and Round Robin opportunities.  Not only were full names and addresses printed, but birthdays and wedding anniversaries as well. 

This little newsletter was very much a labor of love from Glenna Boyd to her fellow quilters.  Glenna wrote and published Aunt Kate’s Quilting Bee while she held down a full-time job and had children.  She designed over 396 of the quilt blocks herself.  Yes, there were a few typos, but she loved her fellow quilters, calling them rather fondly her “girls.”

4 J’s – Joy Craddock published the 4 J’s from her home in Denison, Texas.  She was an avid pattern collector and very much interested in researching and documenting quilt history.  Unfortunately, this is really all we know about Joy and her newsletter, the 4 J’s.  Repeated internet searches returned little except this newsletter contained quilt patterns in a similar set up as Aunt Kate’s Quilting Bee.

Jay Bees (or JB’s) – Again, this newsletter had a similar set up as the first two.  Claudine Moffat published Jay Bees from her home, a black and white publication with stapled pages.  Heavy on quilt patterns and construction, it also dealt with quilt history.  It was popular enough that it is mentioned in the 1993 Uncoverings:  The Research Papers of the American Quilt Study Group.

Little N’ Big – This newsletter was almost a carbon copy of the other three.  It was also mentioned in Uncoverings:  The Research Papers of the American Quilt Study Group, which means it had a fairly large readership.  Unlike the other three, Betty Flack sought and obtained a copyright for her publication.

These four basic, black and white, no frills, no advertising, heavy-on-the-quilt-patterns newsletters offered quilters a chance to obtain new patterns, connect with other quilters, join Round Robins, and try new techniques.  Suddenly the quilting world reached beyond the confines of their towns and states.  And set up the market for this “little” newsletter…

Quilters Newsletter published by Bonnie and George Leman.  It began publication in September 1969 and was distributed monthly except for July and August (which were combined into a summer edition).  When it finally ceased operation in 2016, it had served quilters for 47 years.  This is truly the mothership of quilt magazines.  The newsletter grew to look like editions similar to the one above…

But they started like this…

Some of my old copies of Quilters Newsletter. I purchased a box of feed sacks from one of my mom’s friends who was cleaning out her mother’s house. In the bottom of the box I found back issues of Quilters Newletters, dating from 1969 through 1977, along with two incomplete feed sack dresses. What a find!

When printing and postage became too costly, it moved from monthly to bimonthly subscriptions.  Along the way it lost its “homey” look to transform into the professional quilters magazines we’re accustomed to today.  From Quilters Newsletter, other quilting magazines took inspiration and began their publishing debuts:  Fons and Porter, McCall’s Quilting, Quiltmaker are just a few who followed in Bonnie’s and George’s steps.  Quilters Newsletter was the first quilting publication I subscribed to, and from its pages I learned quilt history, construction methods, and saw the latest quilting supplies and fabric.  There are still back issues available via the internet if you want to see how it transformed itself over the years.  Quilters Newsletter led the way, broke the path, set the mold for the slick publications we’re used to finding in our mailboxes (either the one the US Postal Service drops it in or the inbox of our email account). 

In closing, I’d like to suggest things haven’t really changed all that much.  We still have books about quilting.  Type “quilting” in Amazon’s search bar and literally thousands of book suggestions appear.  These can be purchased in e-versions, hardback, or paperback versions.  Quilters haven’t stopped writing books.  As a matter of fact more books on quilts, quilters, and quilting are available than at any other time in history. 

Newsletters have changed.  Long gone are the black and white mimeographed publications with the fuzzy black and white pictures and template-based quilt patterns.  Today even our guild newsletters take on a professional look and are primarily available only as e-versions.  Printing and postage are prohibitive of anything else.   And there may be a few syndicated quilt columns around.  Social media – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the like – have removed syndication from a few and placed it squarely in the hands of posters, bloggers, YouTubers, and Tic-Tockers.  I post my blog every Wednesday mornings myself, across all of its platforms.

In my opinion, Round Robins are still very much the same.  However, instead of writing letters by long hand and including hand drawn diagrams on onion skin paper, we send group emails and texts, complete with pictures we just took with our phone.  We ask our quilter friends if they have this pattern, or more of a certain fabric.  Do you think this color scheme will work?  And instead of waiting patiently by our mailbox for a week or so, we get instant responses.

Yes, quilting has changed.  But in so many, many ways, it’s stayed the same.  And in my opinion, I think that’s a good, good thing.

Until next week, remember The Details Make the Difference!

Love and Stitches,


*Mary Schafer, an American Quilt Maker written by Gwen Marston. UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN REGIONAL; Illustrated edition (March 25, 2004) ISBN10‏:0472068555 ISBN-13‏:978-0472068555

**Let’s pause and talk about Michigan State University and their acquisition of Mary Schafer’s quilts.  Mrs. Schafer was a prolific quilter, and as she grew older she divided her quilt collection into two categories according to date.  Each collection contained quilts she made, quilts she finished for Betty Harriman, and antique quilts Mary collected.  When Michigan State University obtained the quilts, they sold some of them to pay for the purchase.  The quilts which were sold were one-of-a-kind, completely handmade quilts, purchased by individuals at a price far below their value.  These quilts, for the most part, have become completely lost to quilt researchers, appraisers, and textile aficionados.  Personally, I have an issue with MSU selling those quilts to reimburse the university for the purchase.  Gwen Marston goes into much detail about this in her book about Mary.