Take a look at this quilt:
And this quilt:
These quilts (and dozens of similar designs) are popularly known as “Princess Feather” quilts – graceful plumes spiraling out of a center circle or other applique piece. Most of these quilts are made of either large blocks with the applique design centered in each block or the quilt has one large Princess Feather in the center, serving as a medallion. Surrounding the medallion could be smaller Princess feathers, pieced blocks, or other applique blocks. This quilt hit its heyday from 1840 – 1900, but according to the Quilt Index, quilters are still making them today. Personally, I haven’t seen any made in my quilting career, and none currently in the area of North Carolina I live in, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t being constructed somewhere. Kim McLean, an Australian designer, has a current Princess Feather pattern out, as well as a kit to go with the pattern made up of Kaffe fabrics. EQ 8 has two different Princess Feather blocks in its library. So who’s to say modern Princess Feathers aren’t being made?
What’s fascinating to me is the history behind these blocks – its origins, its name, and its color scheme. All of these are moving pieces behind a block that’s had more than its share of name changes. What may be hard to believe is that this block with the eight graceful, curving plumes may have had its origins in a little plant called….
Let’s park it here for a minute or two and talk about Pigweed. Its scientific name is Amaranthus retroflexus and there are two kinds – Lambsquarters and Redroot Amaranthus. These plants are tall and have smooth, oval leaves or serrated leaves. Each plant can produce as many as 100,000 seeds, and Pigweed is found from as far north as Prince Edward Island, Canada, California, and throughout the southwest and southeast. The plant is believed to have originated in tropical America, but easily spread to other parts of the world as the seeds are tiny and easily airborne.
In other words, if quilters do quilt what they know, it’s easy to see they would be quite conversant with Pigweed and its appearance. And you must admit there is a strong similarity between the leaves of the Amaranthus retroflexus and the Princess Feather block.
Pigweed may have possibly been the origin of the Princess Feather block, but I think we’re all pretty glad quilters decided not to name the block Pigweed. The block actually went by several names until around the early part of the twentieth century. It was known as Feathers, Ferns, Washington Feather, Feather Rose, California Plume and Kossuth Feather. All of these begs several questions – Did Washington ever wear feathers? Who was Kossuth and did he wear feathers? Is there such a thing as a Feather Rose? Does California have a Plume?
As far as George Washington goes, we do have one painting of him wearing a feather in his hat.
This was a portrait made of Washington when he was a Colonel in the Virginia Militia. Yes, he wore a feather, albeit a small one. So maybe, possibly we can see why the block was called Washington Feather.
What about Feather Roses? Well, such a plant exists, but it’s actually a Double Fringed Feather Poppy.
And from what I could gather, this is kind of a persnickety garden flower. It likes certain temperatures, certain soils, and it doesn’t like its roots to be too wet. Definitely a cultivated flower. So could this flower possibly be the source of one of the block’s names? Maybe. But probably only in certain areas of the country. More than likely some quilters took a look at the applique and decided it looked kind of like a rose with feathers.
Now the Kossuth Feather has some possibilities. This is Revolutionary Lajos Kossuth and his feathered hat. If you’re trying to remember his name from studying the American Revolutionary War and are coming up blank, don’t blame yourself. Lajos Kossuth was a Hungarian and was the governor-president of Hungary during their revolution from 1848 – 1849. Couple this information with the fact that there were a few quilts labeled Kossuth Feather and dated around 1859, and it throws some credibility behind this label.
Finally, let’s consider the California Plume. Such a plant exists, but it looks like this:
Which is nothing like spiraling feathers sprouting from a center. It is a parasitic plant and is more commonly known as Warrior’s Plume and seems to have resigned itself to living only in California. I guess if you squint hard and look at the plant from the top you may understand why some folks called the block California Plume.
However, remember the name Princess Feather became generally universal among quilters in the early twentieth century. Coinciding with this was an event in 1860 — which was not that far from the beginning of the twentieth century – the Prince of Wales visited the United States. This would have been Bertie, Queen Victoria’s oldest son and heir apparent.
Along with all the hoopla that preceded and followed his visit, the Heraldry for the Prince of Wales became quite well-known.
In my mind (and in my opinion), quilters picked up on the similarities between the Heraldry and the quilt block and honored the Prince of Wales in their own way by naming the block the Prince’s Feather. Through the years we got a little sloppy with the spelling and the pronunciation and it became The Princess Feather.
Now with the (possible) origins of the design and the block name settled (sort of), let’s take a look at the construction. Most of the Princess Feather blocks are fairly large. As a quilter who appliques quite a bit, I understand why. The smaller the background block, the smaller the feathers would need to be. And with all those curves, I would want my feathers big, so the concave areas wouldn’t be so tight, and it would be easier to control my points as well as deal with the bias – remember the feathers are curved, so bias plays a part in the applique.
Most antique Princess Feather quilts are red and green with maybe touches of yellow. This was a very, very popular color combination with all quilts during the second half (and especially the second quarter) of the twentieth century. Historically you must remember that at this time, commercial dyes were becoming better and more stable – especially Turkey Red (Go here for more details: https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2021/11/24/is-it-reproduction-or-authentic/). It makes sense that quilters would want to use the latest color combinations in their Princess Feather quilts. What we also observe is quilters playing with the color arrangements. Some of the blocks opted for a solid color of feathers, and some would alternate colors.
Still others would divide the block in half and use red fabrics on one side and green on the other.
This was done both vertically and horizontally. I think the feathers which are split in half horizontally by color resemble a bud with a calyx.
So…if all this discussion about the Princess Feather block has you thinking you’d like to make a few blocks and assemble them into a quilt, let me throw out a few suggestion which may help. The first set of recommendations are for a Princess Feather Quilt made of four large blocks.
- If I planned to construct a Princess Feather quilt, the very first consideration I would undertake would be the block size. All of those feathers are slightly curved and most of the feathers have lots of curves on them. Undertaking all of those curves on a small scale would just be…a major headache. I would plan my quilt so my background fabric blocks would be no smaller than 16-inches square (finished). So I would cut them out at 17-inches and plan to trim them down. Since the blocks would be so large, they would be apt to fray (because even if you’re working on a flat surface, you’ll bunch your fabric up at some point and this will cause it to fray). I would either zigzag the edges or treat them with Fray Stop. Either of these would be cut off when the block was trimmed down to 16 ½-inches before sewing them together.
- I would cut my feathers on the bias. Remember what bias is:
Cutting those feathers on the bias makes turning the curves under easier. This is assuming you will either needle turn the applique or use the freezer paper or Apliquick method. If you plan on raw-edge machine applique the bias doesn’t matter so much. However, if you want to do finished-edge machine applique, still cut the feathers out on the bias, because the edges must be turned under.
If you want to make a Princess Feather Quilt, with the block serving as a medallion, such as the one below, there are a couple of ways I’d approach construction, depending on the size of the center. If the center was not much larger than 20-inches, I’d treat the medallion the same way I did the 16-inch (finished) blocks mentioned above. However, if the medallion is larger than 20-inches, you may want to break the feathers into quadrants, applique each quadrant, and then sew the quadrants together to form the medallion. This would cut down on the amount of bulk either in your hands or puddled around your sewing machine. I still would treat my feathers as stated above, depending on how I wanted to applique them.
I hope this blog has given you a little more insight into one of the most intriguing quilt blocks – one which underwent lots of name changes, but whose construction depends on the skill level of the quilter. The Princess Feather is an old quilt block, but it’s still both beautiful and challenging. There’s no need to stick to the traditional green and red fabrics – these blocks look just as wonderful in modern prints.
And don’t let the curves intimidate you. You know how to handle them!
Until next week, remember, The Details Make the Difference!
Love and Stitches,