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,


8 replies on “Are There Quilts Which Set Standards?”

Thanks for a great article—I can’t wait for next week’s! Out of curiosity, I found out that the $5 purchase price for Harriet Powers” quilt in 1890 would be worth about $167 today, way too low a price for such a masterpiece, in my opinion. “Women’s work” and especially black women’s work has historically undervalued.

Fascinating article… especially the second half about the Harriett Powers quilts and the reproductions.

I’m glad this article popped up even though I’m not a quilter. We have a friendship quilt that belonged to my dad’s grandma. It was given to her in 1899 because she was moving ten miles away and would never see her friends again. It’s stitched with her friend’s name, 1899, Atwood, Ind. I’d like it to be enjoyed by others but right now it’s just here for us. Not perfect condition, but loved and super cool.

What a treasure! If you keep it folded, be sure to refold it several times a year so the folds don’t become permanent creases. Keep it out of direct sunlight, don’t store it in the attic or basement or in plastic. All of those will mess with the Ph balance in the quilt and cause it to deteriorate. Wood and cardboard are especially acidic. Okay, quilt care lesson over.

This is such a priceless jewel! Folks must have loved your dad’s grandma to do this for her. I imagine it brought her a great deal of comfort. Treasure that quilt! I wish it could talk. The stories it could tell….

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