I almost decided not to make this topic into a blog. All of this came about from one of my many online Sit and Sews when the topic of “What should go into a hand sewing kit” came up. I was busy trying to determine why my Grandmother’s Flower Garden was giving me such grief (which I’m hand sewing – and I had used a full diamond joiner when I needed only a half-diamond) and was only just a tad tuned into the discussion at the time. I was surprised to find out the opinions on this topic of hand sewing kits were varied – they went from the bare basics to “What are you sewing? A wedding dress?”
Instantly, I was intrigued. So many opinions over a hand sewing kit? Who knew?
I’ve made at least three hand sewing kits in my life. And let me add at this point, a hand sewing kit is different than a hand applique kit. I have a hand sewing kit and at two different points in their “leaving home” years, I’ve made each of my kids one. I think it goes without saying my children’s kits are different from mine:
I thought it might be helpful to go over the differences. The following are the basics for any sewing kit.
Needles. The sewing enthusiast needs more variety, but both kits need several different sizes. And needles aren’t expensive. Buy the good kind.
Pin Cushion. This doesn’t have to be fancy, but a place to park needles and pins is helpful. If you’re making a sewing kit for a non-sewer, make sure it’s big enough they can see it and won’t lose it.
Pins. Some good straight pins are needed. The enthusiast may want an assortment from applique pins to the flower head pins. For everyone else, some nice silk pins or glass head pins are great. Pins aren’t expensive. Don’t get the super cheap ones which leave large holes behind or rust if they get damp.
Scissors. These should be small-ish. Most quilters like nice scissors. I keep a pair of Karen Kay Buckley’s in mine. If the kit is for some else, get a decent pair of scissors and caution the person not to use them to cut paper. And be sure to put their name on the handles. Scissors have a way of walking off.
Needle Threader. Some folks’ eyes are still good enough they don’t need assistance pushing the thread through the eye of a needle, but if they’re in a hurry, a threader is one of the most helpful tools to have in your kit. Threaders run the gamut. They can be simple, like this:
Word of caution here…if this is the kind you go with, put two or three in the kit. My experience with these is they break easily.
A little more complex:
The light is a nice thing to have.
Which a lot of quilters tend of favor.
Some kind of fabric marker. It can be a Frixion, a blue water-soluble pen, or a number 2 pencil. Non-sewing people will at least need to mark hems and where to place a button. Quilters need fabric markers for all kinds of reasons.
Small Ruler. This doesn’t have to extend the entire 12-inches or beyond, but something along the size of a sewing gauge is needed to measure hem length and draw straight lines. Quilters may want something longer and wider, depending on the project currently under their needle.
Thread. Remember a hand sewing kit is different than a hand applique kit, so you won’t need silk thread or a variety of colors. Stick to the basics, especially for the non-quilter. White, cream, black, gray, brown, and navy tend to work nicely for everyone.
Buttons and Fasteners. This is definitely for the non-quilter. I quilt. Please don’t ask me to mend. It’s a good idea to have a variety of buttons in different sizes and in some neutral colors. A small card of hooks and eyes and one with snaps are also nice to have.
For me, these nine items are necessary in the basic sewing kit. I know some of you are thinking, “Hey, I can find most of these items in those little sewing kits they sell at the dollar establishment.”
Yes, you can. I purchased one of these for my daughter before she left for college, and I think the scissors fell apart after one use and the thread was pretty bad quality. Meg doesn’t sew, and even she knew the thread was awful. Plus, it was so tiny it got lost. By purchasing you own tools (for you or your kids…or whoever), you can control the quality and make sure the kit is big enough it doesn’t accidentally get tossed in the trash.
These last items are for the hand sewing enthusiast – someone who’s will be spending serious time with needle, fabric, and thread.
Thread Conditioner or Beeswax. Nothing is more aggravating than fighting knots in your thread. Either one of these helps keep the knots at bay and makes your whole sewing experience much easier.
Magnifier. There will be times when you need to see your marked lines or stitches up close. A magnifier or a pair of reading glasses are super handy. And the reading glasses aren’t expensive. I’ve found you can purchase a case of 12 pairs on Amazon which costs less per pair than those at the dollar stores or elsewhere. And they come with cases. You could feasibly have a pair in every sewing kit/project box in your studio.
Basting Glue. Sometimes you just need a dab or a dot. A small bottle or a glue pen is a wonderful thing to have in your kit. An aside here…as far as I know basting glue wasn’t a “thing” when Meg trotted off to college. I wish you could have seen her face when she saw me using some on vacation. “My hems could have been fixed in two seconds,” she said, “instead of running you down to get you to hem my pants or spending my time doing it.” Maybe it does belong in a “regular” sewing kit?
A Thimble. I know some of you would have put this little sewing tool with the first nine items. However, I think the person who is only using a sewing kit for an occasional mend won’t go through the trouble of putting on a thimble – much less learn how to use it. They want to mend whatever it is that needs mending as quickly as possible and move on with their day. It will more than likely be the sewing enthusiast who spends hours hand sewing who will use the thimble.
Clips. These little gadgets:
Are great to have in your kit. You can keep block pieces or units together. They can corral templates. And you can get them in cute little containers like this:
Which will snuggle right in your sewing kit and keep the clips securely in one place.
Small Iron/Pressing Mat. Even though you’re hand sewing, there will come a time when you need to press the units or the block. If you’re away from home, having ready access to an iron and pressing mat is a great thing. These may not need to stay in your kit all the time, but if you’re taking your hand sewing project on vacation or to a retreat, definitely make sure you’ve packed these in your kit.
Small Rotary Cutter/Small Cutting Mat. Like the small iron and pressing mat, these are tools you will want if you’re sewing away from home. They’ll come in handy if you need to cut out additional pieces or true up a block.
Sewing Kit Containers
This is kind of a personal decision. If the sewing kit is for someone else, you may want to find a container which fits the person’s personality or likes. The only cautionary statement I’d add is make sure the container is big enough it won’t get lost and make sure it fastens securely. I’d also put their name on it – especially if the person is living in a group setting such as a dorm or shared apartment. And I’d put their name on as many tools as I could.
When I began hand sewing in earnest, I had dreams of finding the perfect container which could handle all my needs. I had fond memories of my paternal grandmother’s kit, which was an old cigar box. Grandma Moore hemmed and mended. She didn’t hand sew quilts, so the cigar box worked fine for her. All she needed was a place for scissors, thread, needles, and a sewing gauge. My hand sewing kit needed to be a little more extensive. I have several packets of different sized needles, scissors – all the tools listed above and probably a few more I didn’t think about to add to this blog. I looked at bags and boxes on quilting websites. I looked at containers at office supply places. I finally found the perfect hand sewing kit here:
A small tackle box.
It has moveable partitions and two “shelves”, plus a large bottom with enough height I can add an iron and mat with no problems. Added bonus: A tackle box was much less expensive than bags and boxes sold at quilt stores. And if you think tackle boxes are all green and camouflage-y, think again. Evidently there are as many women fishing as there are men.
Christmas shopping season is upon us and if you have someone in your life heading off to college or living on their own, a sewing kit may be a welcome gift. I can’t say any hand sewing skills taught will stick (I just finished sewing a button on my daughter’s shorts), but it’s certainly a great thing to have in a pinch. I’ve gotten so I put mine in the car every time I head to a wedding or some such event. And most of the time someone there is glad I did.
In fabric stores or on websites. In our quilting world, this is called Reproduction Fabric. This means the cloth is an imitation of an older color palette and print produced by modern methods and with modern dyes. Quilters tend to broadly categorize Reproduction Fabrics into three categories: Revolutionary War, Civil War, and 1930’s Feed Sack designs. This categorization tends to fit our quilting world pretty well as we muddle our way through patterns and applique. However, what you may not realize is in some way, all fabric is reproduction fabric. At some point in time, the colors and prints used now came from or was influenced by some other fabric in the past. Even the wild 1970’s fabric was inspired by something else. And in turn the 1970’s palette inspired this:
Which was designed by Maureen McCormick, who you may remember as Marcia Brady and who is also a quilter.
The fabric playing field has plenty of Reproduction players and substitutes. And it’s fairly easy for cloth manufacturers to produce this material – and not just because of modern spinning, weaving, and dying methods. What most quilters may not realize is a great many of the inspirational resources for the Reproduction Fabric are not copyrighted. Much of the fabric from the Civil War Era and further back does not hold a copyright, which means cloth manufacturers are free to duplicate it without any fear of legal repercussions. And if it did per chance have a copyright, it has long expired. The exception to this copyright-free reproduction free-for-all begins with the feedsacks produced around 1925 and forward. The feedsack manufacturers were very serious about their prints. They hired artists to design their product and patents were held on the design of both the sacks and the prints – pretty much assuring the competition could not duplicate the feedsacks.
So, what did the fabric manufacturers such as Moda and Windham do? Any quick look at the larger quilting fabric websites such as Hancock’s of Paducah shows plenty of 1930 Reproduction Fabric and those fabric designs are still under copyright. There is always the possibility these cloth producers contacted whoever owns the copyright and received permission to reproduce the fabric. However, chances are better they took advantage of the copyright rule which states any design which is 35 percent different from the original is, in and of itself, its own and does not violate copyright law. The designs on this Reproduction Fabric may be similar, and definitely holds the 1930’s color palette, but you’d be hard pressed to find a feedsack which looks exactly like the Reproduction Fabric.
Another concept we quilters must remember is we are small fish in a large Reproduction Fabric pond. Costumers are by far the largest consumer of this fabric – from all Eras. While we tend to limit ourselves to the three categories of Revolution, Civil War, and 1930’s, costumers run the gamut. And I break “costumers” into two broad categories: Professionals and Reenactors. Professionals have given us breathtaking costumes for TV shows, plays, and movies such as Downton Abby, Outlander, Les Mes, Emma, The Great Gatsby, Mary Queen of Scots, Macbeth (2015), Little Women, Memories of a Geisha…and probably one you’d never think of: The Muppets Christmas Carol. Seriously…research the clothing during this period and then watch the movie. It will blow you away…from the tiny smocking on the sleeves to the bonnet Miss Piggy wears.
Reenactors – the second group of costumers – while smaller in number are no less passionate about accuracy of both pattern and fabric. These are the folks who re-enact battles and time periods– which for us means primarily the American Revolutionary War and the Civil War. I taught several of these young reenactors in school and was extremely impressed by their desire everything be as accurate to the time period represented as possible – from the food to the weapons to the clothing. Inevitably at some point one of them would discover I sewed, and I was called on to construct everything from hoop skirts to soldier jackets (once even a wedding dress). And while I may have the exact color of fabric needed in my stash, if it wasn’t representative of the time period, it was always politely declined until just the right fabric could be found.
Yup. In the Reproductive Fabric pond, quilters are indeed small fish.
However, there may come a time when you’re browsing Ebay or another auction site and come across fabric which the seller will authenticate as original to the time period – in other words, the Civil War fabric you’re interested in purchasing may actually be from the mid-1800’s. How do you know if it’s really, truly material from this era? There are several ways, and the first one to consider is the width.
Prior to 1915, fabric widths were under 24 inches.
From the 1920’s to the 1930’s, fabric widths were 30- to 34 inches.
From the 1940’s to 1950’s, fabric widths were 36- to 39 inches.
In the 1960’s, fabric widths expanded to the 44- to 45 inches we have today. Also, please note these are generally American manufacturer widths. European and Asian widths can be slightly less.
The dying process is another item which should be carefully looked at. I realize some dyes in antique fabric will alter over time (and we will look at those later), but there are some general differences between 21st century dye processes and those used in older fabrics. If a seller is claiming a piece of material is antique, the first action to take is flip the fabric over to the wrong side or ask to see a picture of the back of the fabric. If the color saturated to the wrong side of the fabric (meaning the wrong side of the fabric is nearly identical to the front), chances are the cloth is authentic. This is especially true of indigo fabric. Reproduction fabric tends to have a definite right and wrong side and the difference is easily seen.
Printing techniques may also give you another clue to determine if the fabric is authentic or a reproduction. Older printing methods only allowed for printing one color at a time on the fabric, and often these colors didn’t line up perfectly, so you’ll find dyes “outside the lines.” Today’s printing techniques are nearly flawless, so these errors in printing aren’t generally present.
The last characteristic which should be taken into consideration are particular colors. Broadly, there are three colors that should be closely examined. In some instances, these colors do not exist in our palettes at all today. In other cases, they exist, but because we may not use the same chemicals in the dye vats (primarily because we discovered they’re poisonous or just plain nasty), the colors in reproduction fabric may be just a tad different. Specifically, these colors are turkey red, indigo, and some greens. Let’s take a quick look at each.
Turkey Red – This name doesn’t describe the color so much as it does the process need to produce the red cloth. Cloth manufacturers wanted a true red color and through a series of trial and error, the country Turkey (Levant Region) developed a process. The reason fabric producers can no longer produce a “true” Turkey Red is because none of them would go through the process to have true Turkey Red fabric. The process is arduous and well…gross. After you read what goes into it, you’ll understand why modern cloth makers are happy to settle for close. It begins with the root of the rubia plant – also known as madder – for the dye.
1. Boil cotton in lye of Barilla or wood ash
2. Wash and dry
3. Steep in a liquor of Barilla ash or soda plus sheep’s dung and olive oil
4. Rinse, let stand 12 hours, dry
5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 three times.
6. Steep in a fresh liquor of Barilla ash or soda, sheep’s dung, olive oil and white argol (potassium tartrate).
7. Rinse and dry
8. Repeat steps 6 and 7 three times.
9. Treat with gall nut solution
10. Wash and dry
11. Repeat steps 9 and 10 once.
12. Treat with a solution of alum, or alum mixed with ashes and Saccharum Saturni (lead acetate).
13. Dry, wash, dry.
14. Madder once or twice with Turkey madder to which a little sheep’s blood is added.
16. Boil in a lye made of soda ash or the dung liquor
17. Wash and dry.
I know Halloween is long gone, but somehow, I feel if you threw in Eye of Newt and Toe of Frog, no one in the dye house would be surprised.
Anyway, the red in this quilt is a true Turkey Red…
And this is about as close as manufacturers can get to it today.
It is necessary to note that as fabric manufacturers moved away from the traditional method of producing Turkey Red fabric, they employed synthetic dyes, which turned out to be fugitive. The term fugitive in the quilt world means the original color produced by the dying methods eventually fades into an entirely different color. With the early synthetic Turkey Red dyes, the fabric faded into pinks, as you can see in this quilt.
The stars made from “real” Turkey Red fabric are still nice and red. The ones made from the synthetic fugitive dye have faded into a light pink.
So, could you possibly find actual, true Turkey Red fabric from an antique dealer? Perhaps. However, I would definitely compare the antique red fabric to a swatch of modern Turkey Red. And if the fabric has been folded, I would carefully search the fold lines for any fugitive dyes – the early synthetic Turkey Reds can fade at the fold lines or in places where the fabric has been exposed to sunlight.
For a lot of antique quilt enthusiasts, when the color green is thrown out, their minds immediately think about the color called Poison Green. We will talk about this green in a bit, but for right now, I want to give an overall description of the greens used in old quilts.
Early dyes were either vegetable (the color came from plants), animal (shellfish, cochineal), or mineral (the color was derived from minerals). It wasn’t until 1856 that William Henry Perkin accidently discovered synthetic dyes. Perkin was working to produce synthetic quinine. Real quinine was used in the treatment of malaria, but it was expensive to produce from natural ingredients. Perkin thought if he could find a way to artificially synthesize quinine, more malaria patients could be treated, and their treatments wouldn’t be so expensive. However, in the process, he accidently discovered a synthetic dye which produced the color mauve. Therefore, prior to 1856, dyes were produced from plants, animals, or minerals, and the colors created were red, yellow, purple, and blue. Even with all the greenery out there in the big world, no one could find a dark enough natural green to produce green fabric. As a result, early green dye methods involved overdying fabric. It would first be dyed yellow and then dyed again – the second time in the blue dye vat. And it’s these greens which tend to be the most fugitive.
The dyes used were Prussian Blue and Chrome Yellow. The problem with this is the blue can fade more quickly than the yellow. As the green fabric fades, it can look as if it is lime green or yellow green because the blue disappears at a faster rate than the yellow. If you come across an antique quilt with yellow-greens or lime greens, chances are the original color was a darker green and the blue dye is fugitive. However, if the yellow dye is the fugitive, we’re left with quilts like this:
And the original green vines and leaves appear blue. Evidently two different kinds of green fabric were used on this basket quilt, as we have yellow-green leaves and blue vines and leaves.
Around 1870, a synthetic green dye was produced, and it made deep green, teal, and blue-green fabric available. It was an aniline (coal tar) dye and was horribly fugitive. It would bleed out in water and fade to a light khaki color.
It wasn’t until after 1925 a reliable green dye was produced.
Now about those Poison Greens. When that term is tossed out in quilt groups, this is the green which usually comes to mind:
However, that isn’t poison green. This is poison green:
Poison green dyes were based on copper arsenate – arsenic. Chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742-1786) discovered arsenic’s use as a coloring agent in 1778. It became a super popular color and was used in wallpaper, upholstery fabric, clothing, and food. It was decades before people learned anything produced with this green dye made them sick and could even kill them (this was years before anyone in Washington thought about developing the FDA). Scheele himself fell victim to the poisonous side effects of his own green dye and passed away at the age 44. By 1860, folks became aware of the arsenic in this green and it quickly fell out of favor (to show you how popular this color was before 1860, even the White House had a Green Room comprised of poison green paint, wallpaper, and fabric). Light green did not regain favor until the 1920’s when a safe, light green dye was invented, and it was dubbed Mint Green.
The chances of finding true antique greens are iffy at best, unless the fabric is post-1925. Prior to 1925, they were notoriously fugitive. Most, if not all, of the real poison green fabric has been destroyed. I wouldn’t want any of it, regardless.
Natural indigo dye has existed for at least 6,000 years and was highly prized. While raised primarily in Asia, it was discovered Pre-Revolutionary War, that South Carolina also had the resources for raising indigo. I’d like to add this was discovered by a woman – 16 year-old Eliza Lucas. While this plant was different than the one grown in Asia, it still produced the blue dye coveted by Europeans. It was such a cash crop, when Benjamin Franklin sailed to France to procure their help in fighting the British, he took along 35 barrels of it to sell and help finance the war.
Of all the dyes – even Poison Green – indigo has the darkest history. The plants which produce indigo have to be treated with various chemicals (depending on which indigo plant is used) and the byproduct of chemical reaction is carbon monoxide, making the process extremely hazardous. This coupled with the fact growing indigo is extremely labor intensive (it takes literally thousands of plants to produce a small amount of indigo), made it a crop expensive to grow regardless of where it was raised. For many countries, including our own, this meant slave labor was key to its success.
In 1865, work began on producing a synthetic indigo and by 1880 a fairly stable dye was formulated. It was also much less expensive to make than traditional indigos. However, the byproduct was still carbon monoxide when mixed with water. There was a great deal of experimentation with liquids other than water – urine, for example. The stale urine used contained ammonia. The only byproduct of ammonia was zinc. Anerobic bacterial liquids were also tried with varying results. Eventually the molecule which produced the blue we’re used to now, isatin, was isolated. When this occurred, synthetic dyes became readily available – and they were cheap. So cheap that in 1873, when a couple of guys named Jacob W. Davis and Levi Strauss introduced a heavy-duty work pant for gold miners, they dyed them with this new indigo dye.
Now about antique quilts or possible antique indigo blue fabric. What I’m about to write are broad generalities. To read about specifics on this dye and fabric, I would point you to Barbara Brackman. She is the expert in this field, and her website is : https://civilwarquilts.blogspot.com/
Indigo blue is a very stable color – so no fugitives to worry about here. And it reigned supreme until 1840-1850 when Prussian Blues gained favor with dress and quilt makers.
Many of the indigo fabrics had small white or light blue dots or figures on them. Thousands and thousands of yards of indigo fabric were produced. And this is what makes indigo quilts a bit tricky to date. Because there was so much indigo fabric in the market, quilters and dressmakers purchased a great deal of the fabric. So much so, the indigo cloth could have sat in a stash for years not like any of us know anything at all about that….before it was put in a quilt. So, to accurately date an indigo quilt, you have to look at the surrounding fabric, the quilting pattern, and possibly the blocks used.
Can you find antique indigo fabric? Yes. To be sure it’s the real deal and not the reproduction, look at the wrong side of the fabric. The dye should have completely saturated the back of the cloth. If it doesn’t, chances are it’s a reproduction.
Now let’s chat a little about Reproduction Fabric. Today’s cloth manufacturers have done a wonderful job matching dye colors and patterns used in antique fabric without the hazards some of the original textiles produced. And it’s super easy to find nearly any type of Reproduction Fabric you want. I know quilters tend to gravitate to Revolutionary War, Civil War, and 1930’s Feedsacks, but costumers need fabric from all eras. I’m happy it’s as easy to find Edwardian Fabric Reproduction as it is Feedsack Prints. I think it’s wonderful I can make a quilt with modern colors and prints and then turn around and use Reproduction Fabrics in the next one. As quilters, we are truly blessed to have such wonderful varieties of material.
As far as acquiring Reproduction Fabrics, I do think it’s important to know your time era – what type of Reproduction Fabric are you drawn to? For me, it’s the Feedsack Reproductions. I love the 1925-1950 palette. I tend to cultivate those Reproductions as well as the real feedsacks themselves. These take up about one-third of my stash. I keep these fabrics together in one place, sorted by colors. I’ve studied this time period and generally have a good idea about what is a good reproduction and what isn’t. I also like Civil War fabric, but not as much as the Feedsacks. I have a smaller stash of these (it honestly fits into a small, plastic bin) and it’s also kept separate from my general stash. My advice is to know your time period well. Know what prints and colors are authentic. Purchase Reproduction Fabric from manufacturers who make quality and authentic prints. My favorite website to purchase any Reproduction Fabric is Two Bees. https://www.twobeesfabric.com/
Quality product, fast shipping, great service. They are awesome.
Now, how to use them in a quilt? This depends entirely on what the purpose of the quilt is. If I’m making a copy of an antique quilt, I stick solely to the Reproduction Fabric of that time period. This just lends itself to an authentic look. However, if this isn’t the case, I’ll use them just as I would any other stash. For instance, look at this Fall quilt hanging now in my entrance way:
This quilt has Civil War Reproduction Fabric, as well as fabric pulled from my general stash. I made this quilt as part of my Fall decorations, not as a replica of a Civil War quilt, so it really didn’t matter what fabric I used.
Find your time period and study it before purchasing fabric. Be sure the material correctly reflects the era it’s supposed to represent. You may find you have a real love affair with Reproduction prints and they become what you are as a quilter. It’s happened to quilters such as Kim Diehl and Judy Rothamel. The main thing is to find the fabric you love and then have fun making the quilts!
Sometimes quilters need a serious attitude adjustment. Seriously. We can be snobs if we’re not careful. Take for instance a conversation I overheard a couple of months back at a LQS…
“I like that quilt, but it’s so…simple.”
Beg your pardon? What’s there not to love about a simple quilt? Not all quilts are destined to employ the same amount of detail as the Sistine Chapel. Some quilts are designed to bask in their simplicity. For instance, most Amish quilts could be deemed simple. Few colors, simple shapes. But I don’t think any quilter would turn their noses up at them. They are beautiful in their simplicity and color placement – not to mention the quilting in most of them is exquisite.
I’m not sure why some quilters think “easy” quilts are somehow lesser quilts than more complicated ones. Not every minute of your quilting life can be tied up with demanding quilts. Some quilts, due to their design work, are more complicated and take more time (think Lifers). However, there’s not one quilter I know who wants their entire quilting life taken up by these more complicated quilts. In my opinion, every quilter needs at least a few fast, simple quilt patterns in their inventory. Why? Because these are the quilts you turn to when you need a quick quilt for a gift. Just found out one of your fellow guild members is a soon-to-be grandparent? You can pull out one of these patterns, alter the colorway to fit the gender or nursery, and have it pieced, quilted, and bound within a month. And if the pattern is simple enough, it can be altered to fit a tabletop, crib, or bed size without a lot of thought. This is harder to do with more complicated patterns.
If you find yourself constructing a difficult quilt, sometimes an easy quilt is needed to keep your sanity. Challenging quilts can require a great deal of thought and concentration. After most quilters have worked on one of these quilts, they need a break. Sometimes this break may only be a night or two away from the quilt, but sometimes you may need a little longer “time out” yet still want to quilt. A simple quilt is the perfect project to have waiting in the wings. After a few days of working on something “mindless” you’ll find yourself ready to go back to the challenging quilt. And you’ll have been productive in the process, so it’s a win-win for both.
However, let me give you the two reasons I love simple quilts: They’re stash busters and they’re perfect for charity quilt donations. Let me explain. First, stash happens. You may have leftover chunks of fabric which are too big to trash. And if you’re like most quilters, you don’t necessarily purchase material only with a specific quilt in mind. As a result, you have what is called “stash” – extra fabric which has no specific, designated purpose. Over time, this stash accumulates to the point a quilter needs to use some of it up just to keep his or her studio organized. If you have a few simple quilt patterns, these can be used to “bust the stash,” or use all that extra fabric up. The quilts produced from stash busting can be stored to give as last minute quilts or…and this brings us to my second favorite use for simple quilt patterns — used as charity quilts.
If the term “charity quilts” is foreign to you, let me explain what they are. Charity quilts are quilts that are given away to nonprofit organizations which need quilts for various reasons. Project Linus is probably one of the best known NPOs for quilts. They distribute child-sized quilts and afghans to children in need. While it is a national organization, they do have local chapters and drop off points, so you don’t necessarily have to mail your quilt into their headquarters. Quilts of Valor is another well-recognized organization which accepts quilts and gives them to Veterans of all ages and from all wars. This is also a nationally run NPO. If you would rather donate quilts closer to your home, check with your local Social Services and Police Departments who may want them for children they must remove from homes or victims of domestic abuse. My local guild makes lap quilts for the chemo patients at our local hospital. I have three simple quilt patterns I use to make charity quilts, so much so that as I produce “scrappage” from cutting my quilts out, I can immediately sub-cut the left-over fabric into the units needed. I store these until I have enough to make a quilt. This process serves two purposes: it does eliminate my stash and it allows me to make quilts for those who really need one. One note of caution before you jump headfirst into charity quilt production – check with the recipient organization to see if there are any special requirements for the quilts. Some organizations want the fabric pre-washed or for you to wash the quilt after it’s completed. Some may want all machine binding and no hand applique, as most of these quilts visit the inside of a washer quite frequently. Quilts of Valor only accepts quilts with patriotic themes and colors and has their own quilt labels for you to use.
A simple quilt pattern works best (for me, anyway) if I want to make a charity quilt. I can make the quilts quickly, accurately, and get them into the hands of those who need them sooner rather than later.
Simple quilts and more complicated ones are equally beautiful when the work is accurate and there’s a good color palette. No matter if you’re working on an easy quilt or one which has over 5,000 pieces, if the basic quilting guidelines are followed, they’re both successful.
Keep a consistent seam allowance (usually ¼-inch)
Press towards the darker fabric
Put the borders on correctly
Square the blocks and quilt up
All of this brings me to my last point: which is better, a complicated quilt which is not as accurate as it could be or a simple quilt that has been made with great accuracy?
Well…it really depends on who you ask.
If you ask a quilt judge, they’ll more than likely tell you the quilt with the greater accuracy is the better quilt because it shows mastery of the skill set. If you ask a beginner quilter, they may say the complicated quilt is better because it’s harder. If you ask a seasoned quilter, such as myself, more than likely I would agree with the quilt judge – the quilt which shows the better command of the basics is better than the other one.
Finally, I want to leave you with the steps I take when either a simple or complicated quilt becomes just a bit “too much” and I find myself riddled with frustration.
I re-read the pattern. Sometimes, because I have quilted a long time, I tend to skip reading steps I’m super familiar with – such as making four-patches or HSTs. There may be specific instructions in the pattern’s directions I’ve missed. A slow re-read of them may clear up the issues. Then I lock in on each step to make sure I really understand the process.
I carefully examine each block unit as I make them. This is true especially if I’m piecing a quilt verses appliqueing one. If the pattern does not supply unit measurements, I will make a test block and during this process, write down what each unit should measure. As I make the units, I can be sure they “true up”, so the block should come out the correct unfinished size (or at least pretty close).
I draw on past experiences for present success. After 30 plus years of quilting, I’ve constructed all kinds of blocks, quilts, and units. If I’ve made a particular unit or block before, and this same unit is giving me issues in the quilt currently under my needle, I try to remember what I did in the past with this unit which made that quilt successful.
I don’t work if I’m tired. This is actually a tricky issue with me. Quite often, even if I’ve worked all day, cooked supper, and undertook a few household chores, the minute I step into my studio and begin quilting, I feel revived. Normally I can quilt for an hour or two before stopping for the night. However, if I’m working on a challenging quilt and I don’t feel pepped up after a few stitches, the best thing for me to do is shut it down for the night or work on an easier quilt or do some handwork.
If I get super frustrated, the BEST action I can take is simply walk away. More times than not, after sleeping on the problem or just taking some time not to think about it helps. The problem filters through your brain and a solution is found the next day. And this is harder to do than it sounds. You may want to keep working, sure the next time you rip out that seam or unit, you’ll sew it correctly. However, chances are, you won’t, and you’ll just end up more frustrated. Truly, the best action is to just walk away.
Simple quilts are awesome. They can be just as beautiful as more complex ones and display just as many skill sets. They can be great stash busters and charity quilts. They can provide relief from more challenging quilts and allow you some mindless sewing when its needed. It’s always good to keep a few of these patterns tucked back in your files!
Welcome back to the second part of this blog! Buckle up as we talk about the problems with the quilts and the Mother of All Quilt Shows.
Problems with the Quilts
Quilt collectors and historians can easily spot Depression Era Quilts. They’re scrappy, infused with every pastel fabric (both solid and print) imaginable, and white fabric is the neutral of choice. Making the quilts was a popular pastime. It was a cheap hobby which made use of scraps and feedsacks. Both women and men enjoyed the construction and swapping feedsacks. Therefore, there still are quite a few of these quilts around.
The biggest issue with these Depression Era quilts isn’t the workmanship nor the use of kits. The biggest issue is putting a date on them. When you see a quilt obviously made from feedsacks, it’s easy to think, “Oh, that quilt was made in the 1930’s,” since feedsacks were used a lot during that decade. However, this isn’t completely true. Actually, feedsack use hit its height of popularity and usage in the 1940’s during World War II. When you think about Depression Era quilts, you really must take into consideration the years between 1929 through 1950, as women enjoyed making and using the bright scrappy quilts into the fifties. This means even the name – Depression Era quilts – is wrong. Unless a quilt as a solid oral or written history behind it, or is inscribed somewhere with a date, it’s very difficult to pin even a year with any accuracy. We have to give it the vague time period 1929-1950. Too bad there wasn’t a Quilt Day Project back then like we had in the ‘80’s. Too bad people didn’t label their quilts (like the should be doing now).
What We Do Know About the Quilts
There is a “snapshot” of these quilts — The Sears National Quilt Contest held 1933. This contest was organized by Sears, Roebuck, and Company and was held in conjunction with the Chicago World’s Fair. The fair’s theme was a Century of Progress. There were a couple of unique attributes about this fair. First, was the prize money. A total of $7,500 in prizes would be awarded, including a $1,000 grand prize. Second, was the number of quilts entered: conservatively the number is 24,000 – the most any quilt contest has ever had on record to date.
It began innocently enough. The contest was announced in Sear’s January 1933 catalogue, along with the prize money amounts. The rules were pretty simple.
Enter a quilt of your own making
The quilt could not have been exhibited anywhere else before the contest
There was a category which followed the theme of the Chicago Fair – A Century of Progress. Quilters were encouraged to enter quilts into this category as well as the traditional ones.
While Sears realized the prize money was a big draw during the Depression, they didn’t realize how big of an incentive it was and how many quilts would be entered. The prize money set a huge amount of quilting in motion. People who had never quilted before decided to try. Husbands, brothers, sons, and boyfriends helped. A plus for Sears they didn’t see coming – they sold out of fabric, supplies, and patterns. And in the end, the quilts were displayed in Sears stores from coast to coast.
While the contest was announced in the catalogue and on radio in January 1933, the quilts had to be finished and turned in by May 15 – giving the quilters only four months to complete the quilts. The top three winners at the local round were sent to one of the ten Regional Mail Order Houses for another round of judging – Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Chicago, Memphis, Kansas City, Dallas, Seattle, and Los Angeles. The top three from each region was sent to the national round. Of those 30 quilts, the judges chose the top three and an Honorable Mention.
According to newspaper reports and the written records which remain, all 30 of the quilts were exhibited the first summer in 1933. However, for quilt historians, it’s disappointing to note there are no pictures of all the quilts. There were some publicity photos of the top three quilts with the judges and these pictures were sent to local newspapers. The local paper may decide to interview the winner, such as the Lexington, KY newspaper did with Margaret Caden, whose quilt “Star of the Bluegrass” was awarded first place.
Traditionally pieced and appliqued quilts won the big prizes at the Fair. However, remember there was a particular category – the one which followed the theme of the Fair, Century of Progress – which deserves some particular attention. Sears even offered the bonus incentive of an additional $200 if one of these original designs won the grand prize. Of course, this didn’t happen. The quilt above is the one which won the grand prize of $1,000. However, what is interesting is how quilters handled this theme. Some quilters simply embroidered “A Century of Progress” across the top border of the quilt made from a standard pieced pattern. Others dug into the topic, and thoroughly researched inventions and technological advances to include in their quilts. Chicago quilters took the challenge and often incorporated aspects of the World’s Fair itself (remember it was held in Chicago). The Fair commemorated the Centennial of Chicago, so the dates 1833 and 1933 were embroidered, appliqued, and/or quilted into their designs.
Only two of the commemorative quilts reached the final round, and neither was one of the grand prize winners, so the $200 bonus was not awarded. Chicago quilters grumbled loud and long that the local and regional judges had not treated the Century of Progress quilts fairly. These hard feelings grew and festered among the local quilters, to the point letters of protest were sent to Sears. By this time Sears had heard enough of the grumbling and issued curt response letters. The local quilters were not happy. A compromise of sorts was reached in the summer of 1934, when the Fair managers decided to keep the Fair open for a second season. By this time, Sears had already returned the 30 quilts on display to their owners. Sue Roberts invited the top 10 winners to send their quilts back to the Sears Pavilion, as well as invited all the local Chicago quilters to bring their commemorative quilts back for display. At this time, Sears photographed the prize quilts and the commemorative Century of Progress Quilts.
It is critical you realize how crucial this was. At this point in quilt history, quilting was still considered to be “women’s work” and not deemed as important as the other displays of inventions and tools for crop improvement and mechanized industrial processes. To have these photographs gives us a tangible history of these uniquely wonderful quilts. It gives us a true visual of design and color. It also went a long way in smoothing hurt feelings from the local quilters and Sears shoppers.
In the late 1970’s, quilt historian Barbara Brackman lived in Chicago. Well aware of the quilt contest, she visited Sears headquarters and asked about the contest archives. Armed with a few photos and a catalogue listing the 30 winners, she decided to try to find all thirty quilters and document their stories and their quilts. She reached out to local newspapers, mentioned the project in her lectures and workshops, and in all the various quilting publications she wrote for. As word spread, she slowly began to get referrals. Eventually through the work and research of Barbara Brackman, Merikay Walvogal, and other dedicated quilt historians, a total of 150 quilts were located, giving us a verbal or written history as well as photographs.
If you think you may have inherited or come across one of these quilts, I’ve already explained how hard the “Depression Era” quilts are to date. However, the contest quilts often had the theme of the Fair (A Century of Progress) or the date 1933 or 1833-1933 somewhere on the quilt. If you locate a quilt with a contest entry tag or ribbon attached, you’re golden.
What the Sears Quilt Contest Taught Us About the Quilters
Research has yielded as much (if not more) information about the quilters as the quilts. When digging though the written records, it is revealed women of all economic backgrounds entered quilts. It was just as common to find women who were hard hit by the Great Depression – those who lost everything and had to move in with their parents or other relatives – as it was to find the social elite. There are two groups not represented – women of color or immigrants and men. Men may have helped with the quilts, but the quilt was entered under the wife’s/girlfriend’s/sister’s name, or their name may have been listed as part of a collaborative effort. However, there was not one quilt listed as solely constructed by a man.
And while a great number of these quilts were made from fabric scraps left over from dressmaking, there was a surprising number of original pieced or appliqued designs constructed from expensive cotton fabric purchased solely for the contest. It’s easy to assume these quilts were made by women of monetary means (remember not everyone was poor during the Depression). However, this assumption would be incorrect. Working class and unemployed women managed to find the money to buy fabric off the bolt for their quilts. Therefore, there is no real correlation between the quilts and the economic class the women were from.
It also may be this contest birthed what we term the “art quilter” and “art quilts.” The quilts which commemorated the Chicago World’s Fair theme – A Century of Progress – were original because most of those were pictorial by design. This was a new form of quilting. It was so new that the quilt judges had not seen this type of quilt before and didn’t know what to make of it. They were used to traditionally pieced and appliqued quilts. Because these “art quilts” were so new to the quilting world, it’s felt the judges didn’t give serious consideration to them when awarding prizes.
The contest also yielded quite a bit of information about professional quilt makers. Several of the women who entered the contest made quilts for a living. The first prize winner was a group project, coordinated by Margaret Caden who paid professional seamstresses a small price to piece, stuff, and quilt her entry.
There were other quilts entered in the contest which were either made by professional quilt makers and entered under their own name, as well as quite a few quilts which were made by professional quilt makers, purchased by another woman, and was entered into the competition under the purchaser’s name.
What Does All This Information Mean?
After sifting, reading, analyzing, and re-reading all the information, what can we learn from this Sears National Quilt contest? If you’ve my previous blogs about Grandmother’s Flower Garden, Sunbonnet Sue, and the Double Wedding Ring, you may remember these Depression Era quilts weren’t necessarily made for frugality or warmth. A good many were (such as my great-grandmother’s quilt), but a significant number were made for entertainment, competition, and pleasure. It’s truly important to remember the quilts made from 1929-1950 were a product of social and cultural factors far more complex than the cliches which surround the Great Depression. Those quilters were like us in many ways. They liked sewing. Many of them enjoyed competition. They believed pretty fabric is a wonderful thing. And sometimes we pinch pennies and save — just like they did — to purchase material we simply must have.
What the Depression Era Quilts Did for Applique
If you’ve followed my blog long enough, you know my favorite quilting technique is applique. Couple that with Depression Era Quilts and I’m one happy quilting camper. Applique is the quilting technique by which you sew pieces of fabric onto a quilt block to form a picture. The sewing can be either by hand or machine. The picture can be as simple as this
Or as complicated at this.
Applique has been around since 980 BCE in Egypt – at least that’s when we can actually document it. And this technique had been going strong in American quilts since the 19th century. So, this technique was not new to the Depression Era quilter. However, what they did with applique was new and, in many cases, ground-breaking. Let’s start with the woman who I consider the founder of the Modern Applique Movement, Marie Webster.
If there is one individual who championed this quilt technique and in her own quiet way pushed the limits on an early woman-owned business, it’s Marie Webster. Born in 1859 in Wabash, Indiana, she attended public schools. When an eye condition kept her out of college, she read widely and took Latin and Greek from a tutor. It’s interesting to note she had no real art training. Like many women of her day, she loved to garden and held a special affinity for flowers. As a young girl, she was taught fine hand sewing by her mother. Hand sewing remained a hobby for her until around 1909, when her husband became ill. She took up quilting to pass the time while she cared for him. Then at the age of 50, she designed her first quilt, a Rose of Sharon.
Marie’s friends encouraged her to send it to Good Housekeeping. The editor was impressed, and she was asked to design quilts as well as write articles. She became well-known (she was really the first quilting celebrity of her time) and her quilts were displayed in various places across the United States. She continued this line of work until 1911 when she launched The Practical Patchwork Company, which sold quilt kits – primarily applique kits. Her plan was unique. She and her sister, Emma Daughtery, pre-stamped the applique figures on fabric so they could be easily cut out. Also included were colored tissue patterns allowing the quilter to play with applique placement. The company also offered full quilting services – from making a quilt for you, to basting, to quilting. The company became so successful Marie had to hire local quilters to keep up with the demand. And while her son eventually helped her (and took over the business when Marie decided to retire at the age of 83), The Practical Patchwork Company was a woman-owned and woman-run business. Most of the quilt kit companies during the time period may have had a woman’s name on the letterhead, but they were owned and run by men. And in the middle of all this, Marie found the time to write Quilts: Their Story and How to Make Them – the very first book on American Quilt History.
Webster designed dozens of quilts and became a leader of the early twentieth century quilting revival. Webster’s designs rejected the bright colors and heavily embroidered Crazy Quilt patterns of the late nineteenth century in favor of the simple, appliquéd quilts that were popular in the mid-nineteenth century. The Arts and Crafts Movement of the early 1900s also influenced her simple, handmade appliquéd quilts. The hallmarks of her work have been characterized as “balance, harmony, restrain, elegance, and above all, simplification.”
Webster frequently used a palette of soft, muted pastels and modern designs that were less elaborate and more realistic, as opposed to the stylized forms and bright colors of the late Victorian era. Her appliqué quilt patterns became especially known for their beautiful, mostly floral designs, done in pastel colors. These qualities also made her designs unusual for that time. Her quilt motifs were typically inspired from nature, especially flowers from her garden, with popular pattern such as “Iris,” “Poppy,” “Daisies,” “Sunflower,” “Poinsettia,” “Morning Glory,” “Pink Rose,” and “Grapes and Vines.” Webster’s modern quilting designs and her patterns, published in women’s magazines and in advertisements for her mail-order quilting business, inspired adaptations from other quilt designers, pattern makers, and quilt producers, although they did not always attribute her for the original design idea. The biggest culprit who stole her designs and did not give her credit in my opinion? Mountain Mist. For instance…this is Marie’s Sunflower pattern.
This is Mountain Mist’s.
Marie’s Practical Patchwork Company fed the Colonial Revival and the Arts and Crafts Movement through the 1920’s. By the time the Great Depression rolled around, and Sear’s announced its contest, quilters were very familiar with applique. When the special category “Century of Progress” was announced, quilters didn’t miss a beat. They designed applique like this:
Without so much as a hiccup.
The clear pastels Marie used easily fit right into the scrappy look and color palette used from 1929 – 1950. She also was one of the first (if not the first) quilt designers to develop a Sunbonnet Sue pattern. Marie suffered at stroke from which she never fully recovered and died on August 29, 1956, at the age of 97, leaving behind a quilting legacy of applique and fine handwork which was finally recognized in 1991 when she was inducted into the Quilters Hall of Fame – which is now housed in her former home in Marion, Indiana.
We can see her work and dedication reflected in today’s applique artists such as Kathy Wiley, Esther Aliu, Deborah Kemball, Kim Diehl, Alex Anderson, McKenna Ryan – the list could go on and on. Every time I work on floral applique Marie comes to my mind and I’m thankful she had a vision of what quilting could be and was daring enough to simplify applique so anyone could enjoy it.
The time of the “Depression Era” quilts was truly remarkable on so many levels. The pastel colors lightened and brightened homes, pushing back the darker colored fabrics of the Victorian Era. Quilters challenged themselves to make blocks smaller and use more pieces of fabric. They made do with feedsacks yet managed to purchase the fabric they wanted. Applique changed and developed into a technique less fussy, with clean cut lines and beautiful floral arrangements. Art quilts were birthed, and Sears, Roebuck, and Company held the mother of all quilt shows. From 1929 – 1950, quilting was an ever-changing art field. However, by 1955 enthusiasm for quilting waned as more women entered or remained in the workforce after World War II. The majority of them no longer had time to make quilts (even though we know the really cool women kept quilting). There wasn’t another such quilting revival until our Bicentennial in 1976.
If you would like to read more about Depression Era quilts, I’ve included my sources at the bottom. It’s truly a fascinating period of quilting.
Until Next Week, Quilt On!
Love and Stitches,
Sherri and Sam
Patchwork Souvenirs of the 1933 World’s Fair by Merikay Waldvogel and Barbara Brackman
Feedsacks: The Colorful History of a Frugal Fabric by Linzee Kull McCray
Softcovers for Hard Times by Merikay Waldvogel
A Joy Forever: Marie Webster’s Quilt Patterns by Rosalind Webster Perry and Marty Frolli
Marie Webster’s Garden of Quilts by Rosalind Webster Perry and Marty Frolli
The Sears National Quilt Contest in the Journal of Antiques and Collectibles online edition
I love quilts made during the 1930’s. This is a fact you may have tuned into, as some of my longer blogs this year have dealt with Sunbonnet Sue, the Double Wedding Ring, and Grandmother’s Flower Garden. All of these quilts came to prominence during the Depression years. Why do I like 1930’s quilts so much? Two reasons. First, I love the color palette during this time. While times may have been dark, desperate, and depressing, the colors were anything but. Bubble gum pinks and bright pastels ruled the quilting roost. Second, I fell in love with the idea of “making do.” And by this, I mean making the most out of everything you had, not just fabric. String was saved, paper was collected, and every nail and screw was hoarded with a religious fervor. The folks who were able to hang onto their homes learned to grow vegetable gardens and knew what “weeds” in their yards were edible. Money may have been in short supply, but ingenuity wasn’t. People bartered and traded and “made do” until better times came. Naively I thought this also included fabric…and it did, but not to the degree I thought.
You can’t begin a discussion about quilts made in the 1930’s without discussing feedsacks. There is a common misconception floating around in some quilt histories which gives you the idea cloth feedsacks were invented and used exclusively during the Depression Era. That is patently false. The idea is kind of romantic – women could take something so lowly and make beautiful items out of it during the dark days of the Depression. However, feedsacks were used for sewing years before the calendar flipped over to the 1930’s. As a matter of fact, the feedsack by itself is a marvel of American ingenuity.
The story of the lowly feedsack begins in the early 1800’s – at least 100 years before the 1930’s economy went bust. During the early 1800’s, items such as food staples, grain, seed, and animal feed were shipped in barrels, tins, and boxes. This wasn’t ideal. Tin would rust and boxes and barrels could leak or be damaged. They also were bulky and difficult to transport. Someone (I never could find out definitively who) decided sacks would be a far better way to ship these items. Slowly, between 1840 and 1890, these sacks replaced their counterparts. Initially they were heavy canvas bags. Flour, sugar, meal, grain, salt, and feed were shipped in them. With the invention of the “stitching machine”, double locking seams were sewn along the sides, making the bags heavy-duty and reusable. A farmer would stamp the bag with his mark or brand and bring them back to the mill to be refilled.
This worked well until the late 1800’s when northeast mills began weaving inexpensive cotton fabric. Feedsacks (or feed bags, as they were known then) were printed on plain white cloth that matched barrel sizes. For example, the standard one-barrel bag could hold 196 pounds of flour. A smaller bag – such as 1/8-barrel bag — only held 14 pounds. The brand name was printed on the side and many of the logos were circular, a throwback to when the emblem had to fit on the lid of a barrel. Since these bags weren’t as heavy duty as the canvas bags and couldn’t be reused, women quickly discovered these sacks could be used in the place of fabric for quilts and other needs.
And this was good. The basic needs, such as a quilt back, under garments, dishtowels and such could be constructed out of these cotton sacks. You see, until around 1929, cotton fabric was on the expensive side of household needs. Cotton was king and ruled exclusively until sometime between 1914 and 1929 when the bottom dropped out of the cotton market. Synthetic fabric, such as rayon, became popular for dresses and underwear. The price of cotton dropped. As a result, more and more companies used cotton sacks for packaging.
Eventually, feed and flour sack manufacturers realized what women were up to, and the cloth bags they had meant only to be used for packaging were taking on a life of their own. An opportunity jumped out at them, and they grabbed it with both hands. First feedsacks were produced in solid colors. Around 1925, the printed feedsacks we’re more familiar with were produced. If women liked the solid colored feedsacks, they fell in love with the printed ones. Dresses, aprons, shirts, and children’s clothing were made from the printed sacks. Prior to this, the manufacturer’s logo was stamped on the feedsack, and most of the time it was difficult (if not impossible) to remove. Now they were pasted on with paper labels, so they were easier to get rid of. By the late 1930’s there was a great deal of competition to see who could produce the most attractive and desirable prints. Feedsack companies hired artists to design the cotton sacks and colors were carefully chosen. In the end, this was a win-win situation for the women and the manufacturers. Women would pick out flour, sugar, beans, rice, cornmeal, feed, and even fertilizer based on which fabric print they wanted. These feedsacks came in different sizes and the quality of fabric depended on what it held. Sugar sacks had a much finer weave. Sacks with feed had a coarser weave. By 1914, sacks came in 10, 6, 4, 3, 2, and 1-pound sizes, but there wasn’t any consistency in them. The sizes were determined by the manufacturer and there were no standards. In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt standardized the sizes – a 50-pound feedsack measured 24-inches x 38-inches and a 100-pound sack measured 39-inches x 46-inches.
Besides causing competition among feedsack producers, the popularity of the cotton bag had an unexpected side effect – a black market of sorts. Women not only traded them among themselves, but many were also able to sell them back to the store where they purchased the feedsacks and the store owners could re-sell the empty bags. Chicken farmers – who went through a lot of feedsacks – often developed a nice side hustle selling their extra empty bags.
Like most significant historical objects, their time in the spotlight is not so neatly bookended. When the term “feedsacks” is used among quilters as well as non-quilters, most folks tend to think of their use from 1930-1939. We assume once their popularity peaked during the Depression, they slid into obscurity in the 1940’s.
That assumption is wrong.
Yes, feedsacks were used by women for clothing and bed coverings during the economic hard time of the boll weevil depression in the south in the 1920’s and the Great Depression that followed it. However, feedsacks continued to be used for sewing before these times and afterwards, well after World War II. Even though the economy improved during the 1940’s, World War II caused the need for us to conserve our resources for the war effort. Using feedsacks for sewing was now not only a nod to thriftiness, but it was also patriotic. So feedsack manufacturers continued to produce bags with attractive prints and colors. Dress, apron, children’s clothing, and household linen patterns were printed. One feed sack could easily accommodate a child’s shirt or dress and three identical feedsacks could make a woman’s dress. Often the patterns came with directions for using the string pulled from the sides of the sack for crocheted or knitted items. A 1942 estimate showed that three million women and children of all income levels were wearing print feedbag garments.
Fast forward to now, and we can still find feedsacks at auctions and some yard and estate sales. A quick glance at Ebay showed 3,752 listings. Feedsacks are still available for purchase, but with 1930’s reproduction fabric on the market, how can you be sure you’re buying an actual feedsack? First, don’t depend on a label being present, even on the older feedsacks. The paper labels were easily removed. A coarse weave isn’t a good indicator either, as this fabric could also be purchased off the bolt. The best way is to look for this somewhere on the bag:
This line of holes and stitches are from the chain stitching which held the feedsack together. Even better than the line of holes is finding the actual thread present somewhere on the bag.
The Myths Surrounding Depression Era Quilts
There are several quilting myths surrounding the Depression Era quilts. The first one being why they were made. The idea these quilts were made to keep people warm because blankets were either too expensive or unavailable is correct. However, that is not the only reason they were made. As I mentioned in my blog about the Double Wedding Ring Quilt, they were also made for entertainment. Women (and some men) became pretty competitive in quilt construction. They competed against each other to see how many pieces they could fit into a block like the Double Wedding Ring or how small they could make the blocks. So, besides being a source of warmth, these quilts also served as a source of fun and a distraction from the sometimes day-to-day survival of the Great Depression.
The second myth involves the exact time frame of these quilts. It’s easy to believe that the Depression Era quilts began on January 1, 1930 and gradually dwindled out by December 31, 1939 because this is roughly the time period of the Great Depression (although historians run the Great Depression from August 1929 – March 1933). By the year 1940, most historians and quilters turn their attention to World War II. It’s important to remember the quilts made during the Depression were inherently scrappy quilts – bright, beautiful scrappy quilts which were usually set with white as a neutral (which even today with all our fabric choices, if you’re making a scrappy quilt, white is the go-to neutral to make all your fabrics play nicely together). And these scrappy quilts were actually birthed in 1925 and their life span ran into the 1950’s. But because of the wide use of feedsacks during the 1930’s, they tend to be lumped into a 10-year span.
This quilt movement began around 1925 with the fascination for “colonial” antiques. This interest came from a growing nostalgia for an imagined American past as well as a developing pride in American arts and crafts. This movement has been called the Colonial Revival, but there’s great speculation on just how accurate the nostalgia was about our past. This revival included furniture, rag rugs, and patchwork quilts. Decorators and magazines encouraged folks to dig through their attics and see if any old quilts were up there and use them as bed coverings. “And if you can’t find any, surely it will be easy for you to make your own” (Chicago Tribune. 1933). Trendsetters encouraged a return to handwork, including applique and fine hand quilting, which had fallen out of favor in the 19th century when the sewing machine was introduced for wide consumer purchase.
However, the one thing decorators and magazines changed about these older quilts was the color scheme. Instead of the darker, muted, grayed-toned or black-shaded fabrics in the antique quilts, they promoted lighter pastel colors – the 1920/1930 color palate we’re familiar with.
New quilts were made from old patterns with lighter, brighter fabrics.
With the 1920’s Colonial Revival pushing the art of quilting, by the time the Great Depression did arrive, quilt making was in full swing, with scrappy quilts playing front and center. Quilting was a hobby for both rural and urban women of all classes. Some quilt historians believe this scrappy look can be explained by a desire for a variegated look in nearly everything. It was even found in the dishware during this time. This tableware was designed by Russell Write in the 1920’s and included simple dishes in a variety of bright or pastel shades.
Fiesta Ware is probably the best known of this style dishware, but several other china lines also included the “mismatched” plates.
The third myth involving these quilts is the one of frugality. The scrappy look was a trend. The fact was the more pieces of fabric in a quilt during this time period wasn’t a statement of thriftiness but an indication of the quilt maker’s access to abundant fabric. The small scraps in a quilt are rarely bits leftover from sewing but have been deliberately cut down from larger pieces of material. And the white fabric which was used as a neutral in these scrappy quilts generally was not leftover from plain feedsacks or other sewing – it was purchased off the bolt.
Furthermore, it was possible to buy the scrappy look if you didn’t have your own feedsack and fabric stash. Magazines advertised packets of small scraps and factory leftovers. Sears, Roebuck, and Company sold boxes of cotton prints pre-cut for patterns such as the Double Wedding Ring and Grandmother’s Flower Garden. A quilter could also purchase pre-cut kits for Trip Around the World, Butterfly, and the Fan. What we now call the Big Box Stores quickly realized while quilting was a necessity for some, it was still just as much of a hobby then as it is now. The Ladies Art Company offered the first pre-cut kits in 1922 and the idea spread like wildfire. The kits served several purposes. First, it eliminated choosing fabrics. With a kit, the quilter could rest assured the material harmonized. Second, the fabric was already cut – a clear win for quilters like me who really dislike this part of quilting. Marie Webster started the Practical Patchwork Company which also sold kits (more on Marie later – she was so awesome). Then Sears, Roebuck, and Company sponsored a national competition for the 1933 World’s Fair. Anne Orr took two of the prizes. Ms. Orr wrote a column for Good Housekeeping. Several of her designs –including “Autumn Leaf” and “The Lincoln Quilt” — were developed as patterns for sale by Orr Studio which she owned. Eventually these kits were picked up by Good Housekeeping who offered them for purchase through the magazine. Another firm, the Frederick Herrshner Company of Chicago sold a kit for a Double Wedding Ring quilt with die cut pieces ready to stitch for $3.95 in 1932. So, if you had the cash, the scrappy look could be bought – pre-cut and ready to rock and roll.
Next week we’ll take one more deep dive into the history of these quilts, and take a look at the largest ever quilt show.
Most of my quilt blogs are about techniques and skills and quilt history. They may also feature pictures of beautiful quilts. I’ve gotten fairly personal in a few of these blogs – you’ve known about my dad’s death, my mom’s health, and my brother’s cancer. One year my daughter’s cervical cancer was front and center most of the time. My readers have encouraged me, prayed for me, and lifted my spirits so much.
Right up front, I want to say this is one of those personal blogs. In November, I’ll hit one of those milestone birthdays – the kind which end in a zero. I’ll give you a hint, it’s between 50 and 70. You know, you don’t really plan on getting older. I mean, you may plan for retirement, but somehow your brain doesn’t cash the check your body is aging and changing. What’s even more telling is your brain doesn’t allow for the fact your family and friends are aging, too. When you run into someone you haven’t seen in a while, it’s always a shock when you discover they’ve gotten older just like you have. Somehow, at least in my brain, time stands still. These people and places I may not have seen in years are encased in a timeless bubble of how they looked “then”, and I’m always surprised how they look “now.”
Time wrote me a reality check this week and it was difficult to cash. Health-wise, I’m fine. I could stand to lose a few pounds, but overall, I’m good. So, this isn’t about me. This week I found out a wonderful woman I worked with years ago passed away. During the time we were both employed at the same place, we were close. Her son took karate from my husband. There were eight of us (all women) at this place of employment who were very good friends. Eventually, we all left. And as time and circumstances ultimately do, we lost touch. We got together for lunch sometime in the mid-2000’s, but then… nothing. Eventually one of us moved to Georgia. One to Virginia. One to Ashville. One to Charlotte. One to Sparta. Last week, the group got together again, sans me – who couldn’t for a variety of reasons. And it was through searching for one of our group, we discovered she passed away.
Fast forward into the next week. I’ve explained I grew up in a small town and I attended a small high school. We have an active Facebook alumni page which I regularly receive alerts from. I generally know which class is having a reunion, whose grandkids are attending the same high school, and all the little things that make living in a small town and attending a small school so wonderful.
I also receive alerts about who’s passed away. And since it’s a small school in a small town, even if this person has graduated years before me, I know them. I may not know them well and it may have been years since we talked, but I remember them. This week, there was another notice. A man from the class of ’74 died. I knew him. Knew his sister and both his younger brothers. One of those brothers was in my graduating class.
You may be asking why did these deaths hit me so hard when I hadn’t seen them in years?
They were both in their 60’s.
It was sobering moment.
It made me stop and take stock in myself. Who I am. What I want to accomplish. What I want to leave behind. All those questions I need to answer truthfully at this point in my life took front in center. What I need to throw out. Relationships I need to foster and grow and those I truly need to release.
So, what does all this have to do with quilting? If you’re what I call a “Passionate Quilter” – someone who quilts regularly, feels your best when you’re interacting creatively with the art, lives for the fellowship of other quilters, and all of this holds a nearly sacred place in your soul – it means stop procrastinating.
Stop putting your quilting last. Housework will be there tomorrow. So will laundry. You may have to work for a living (if you aren’t retired), but that doesn’t mean your occupation defines your life and most of your time. Creativity is as necessary to the soul and spirit as water, coffee, and wine. It sees you over rough patches and can be part of a foundation when you can’t see your way.
Fellowship with your quilting friends. I’m not trying to be sexist or inconsiderate here, but let’s face it: the majority of quilters are women. Women need other women at every point in their lives. Our circumstances may shift and change, but most of the time – no matter where they’re at – women build networks with other women. We need these webs of friendship and fellowship for many reasons. Support. Encouragement. Laughter. And I’ve found as I’ve gotten older, I need my girlfriends more than ever. There are things I can’t discuss with my mother, daughter, or even Bill. But I can with the group of women I quilt with. And they give me honest (sometimes brutally honest) answers. They call me out when I’m wrong. They love me when I’m unlovable, cry with me when things go wrong, and support me when I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. They’ve brought meals to my daughter when she was sick as well as gifting her with a quilt. As women get older, their lives change. Spouses may die, kids move away, parents are gone…but friendships with women your own age support a solid foundation of good mental health…shenanigans…and usually a glass of good wine (or two). Think Golden Girls with a quilt studio.
Stop putting off making the quilts you want to make. I realize on the surface this can sound kind of selfish. As a whole, quilters are givers. We make quilts for family and friends. We make them for cancer patients and kids and babies. Honestly, we’ll make a quilt for just about anybody. It’s who we are and what we do. And this is great. But don’t let that stop you from making a quilt just for you. In the pattern you want. In the colors you love. With the technique you’re the best at. If you want to try a harder pattern or a new technique – go there fearlessly. If pushing yourself makes you happiest, do that. If you want something you can mindlessly stitch while watching TV or listening to an audio book, do it. In all of our selfless giving to others, remember to take some time to take care of yourself.
Cut the fabric. All of us have that one piece of fabric. It’s beautiful. It may even be on the expensive end of our fabric purchases. With me, it’s within an easy arm’s reach. Looking at it makes me feel a little happier. I love the colors and the design. Chances are, you have a favorite piece of fabric in your stash, too. My question now is, “Why is it in our stash and not in a quilt?” If you’re like me, you think it may be too beautiful to cut. Or I’ll cut it wrong. Or once I use it up, I may never find another piece of fabric I love as much.
Cut the fabric.
Life is too short not to. If you don’t cut it up and use it, after you die, no one will cherish it quite like you do. There’s a good possibility it’ll end up in an estate sale for pennies on the dollar or even worse – Goodwill. Find a pattern or make one. Cut the fabric. Put it in the quilt and love that quilt. Then at the end of things, you can pass it on to someone else who will love it and appreciate it because you loved and appreciated it and it’s part of who you were.
Appreciate your skills and talent. Nearly every time I compliment a quilter or hear one complimented, the usually the first sentence out of that quilter’s mouth is something like, “Thanks, but look at the mistake I made over here…”
I think quilters (or any other artist for that matter) should recognize what and how long it took them to get to the point they’re at today. It took hours of learning and practice and pushing ourselves to obtain certain skill sets. That is not something to be shrugged off or taken lightly. It took time and patience and determination. Don’t wave off a compliment. Accept it. Say thank you. Perhaps offer to show the person how you made the quilt.
But above all else, recognize your talent and skills. You weren’t able to order them off Amazon. You worked hard to obtain them.
Live is short, quilter friend. Make the quilts you want to make. Fellowship with your quilty friends. Acknowledge your talent and the skills of others. Take chances. Push yourself. Don’t allow anyone but yourself to define your own quilting journey. And at the end of it, you’ll know you made some beautiful quilts, maybe even used them to comfort others. You’ll have a ring of friends who will mourn your loss as an artist and friend. The skills you worked so hard to develop will be passed down to others and continue to be explored and perfected even more. Maybe your quilts will hang in a museum. Maybe they’ll live on to comfort your child, grandchild, or great-grandchild when you’re gone. They may be the only “hug” a foster child, cancer patient, or abused woman has. Be fearless….be bold…
I toss out a lot of math in my quilting blogs. But when you think about quilting, there’s a great deal of geometric work involved. I’ve always taken the math end of the art for granted until a couple of weeks ago when I went to get my oil changed. In North Carolina the Delta variant numbers are still pretty high. The oil-changing establishment I went to closed their small waiting room and were allowing everyone to stay in their car while oil is changed and fluids are checked. So, while I was waiting for the mechanics to take care of my Tahoe, I read a quilting book. The lead mechanic noticed.
“Are you a quilter?” he asked.
I nodded. “Over 30 years.”
“My wife just started quilting. She made quilts for Christmas presents. Quilters are engineers! There’s so much math and planning involved!”
I never thought of quilters are engineers, but I guess we are to a degree. But mathematicians? We’ve been mathing out quilts for generations.
As a whole, quilters can read and follow pattern directions pretty well. However, altering the pattern, reproducing a quilt without a pattern (for example, making a copy of an antique quilt), or designing your own quilt can be a challenge if you don’t know how to “math” the quilt out. There are formulas for just about everything. And instead of this freeing up quilters to make the quilt they want, I find most quilters are just a bit intimidated by the math. Don’t be. I will tell you what I told the countless chemistry and physic students who passed through my classroom: Numbers are your friends. They don’t lie.
The great thing about quilt formulas is they never change. They’re pretty stable across the board. Over the years I’ve mentioned lots of formulas. Finally, a good quilting buddy of mine asked if I would put all the formulas in one blog post so she wouldn’t have to Google each formula when she needed to use it. This seemed like a good idea, so the here we go…
Before we take a deep dive into block units, there are two important facts to remember:
When adding seam allowances, etc. to the unit, use the finished size. For instance, if we want to reproduce a finished 2-inch square, we begin with 2-inches.
These formulas work only with ¼-seam allowances.
Squares and Rectangles
Finished size + ½-inch. For example, if I need a 3-inch finished size, I will cut a 3 ½-inch square of fabric. The added ½-inch allows for ¼-inch seam allowances on all sides. If I needed a 3-inch x 5-inch finished rectangle, I would add ½-inch to both measurements and cut a 3 ½-inch x 5 ½-inch unfinished rectangle.
This formula assumes the length needed is WOF. For this, you simply add ½-inch to the needed width. If you need a 2-inch strip WOF, add ½-inch and cut the strip at 2 ½-inches by WOF (width of fabric).
This formula works whether you’re constructing the HSTs by placing two pieces of fabric right sides together, drawing a diagonal line from one corner to another, and then sewing two seams, ¼-inch away from both sides of the diagonal line, or simply cutting a square on the diagonal to make two triangles.
Finished size of HST + 7/8.
Keep in mind each HST unit made this way actually produces two HSTs.
This block unit involves four triangles and most of the time this unit will involve cutting four squares of fabric – meaning each square can produce four QSTs, depending on if each fabric is only used once. For this formula, take the finished size of the QST and add 1 ¼-inches. Cut your squares this size, and then cut each of them twice on the diagonal.
Finished size of QST = 4-inches.
4-inches + 1 ¼-inches = 5 ¼-inches.
Cut four squares (one in each fabric needed) and then cut each square twice on the diagonal.
A trapezoid is a rectangle which has each end cut on a 45-degree angle in opposite directions.
This block unit works a little differently than the prior ones. For this shape, take the finished height and add ½-inch. So, if you need the trapezoid 3-inches in height, you will cut your fabric strip at 3 ½-inches. The length works a little differently. Since you must cut off both ends of the strip at 45-degree angles, you have to add more than just the standard ½-inch for the seam allowance. For the trapezoid’s unfinished length, add 1 ¼-inches to the finished length. If we need a 7-inch finished trapezoid in length, we will add 1 ¼-inch and cut our strip 8 ¼-inches long.
So, for a 3-inch x 7-inch trapezoid, we will cut a strip of fabric 3 ½-inches x 8 ¼-inches. Then we align the 45-degree angle on a ruler with the horizontal edge of the rectangle and carefully cut the end of the strip from the bottom corner to the top edge. Flip the trapezoid upside down (or rotate the mat). Align the 45-degree angle on the ruler with the edge of the shape and cut again.
Occasionally you will see this in a quilt block:
This is a half-trapezoid – only one of the ends has been cut at the 45-degree angle. This isn’t any more difficult to make than a trapezoid, but the math is a little different. The height is determined the same way – add ½-inch to the finished height. However, for the length you only need to add 7/8-inch. Using the same trapezoid finished measurements as above (3-inches x 7-inches), we will cut the unfinished trapezoid 3 ½-inches x 7 7/8-inches. Then simply cut the whichever end needs to be slanted at 45-degree angle.
Isosceles Triangle in a Square
This unit involves cutting two shapes: background triangles which are mirror images of each other and the isosceles triangle itself. It’s also important to remember the sides of the isosceles triangle are of a different measurement than the base of the triangle. The background of this block has a left- and right-facing sides (the mirror images). In order to cut the fabric correctly for this, we will need to cut two rectangular pieces of fabric with their right sides together. This will give us the mirror images needed. To get the correct size rectangles needed to do this, take the desired finished size of base (this will be the shortest side of the mirrored triangle) of the mirror image triangle and add ¼-inches. For instance, if this number is 3-inches, add 3/4-inch to this and cut a strip of fabric 3 3/4-inch long, by the WOF.
To determine the length, take the desired height of the block and add 1 ¼-inches. So, if our finished height is 5-inches, we will cut the 3 ¼-inch strip into 6 ¼- sections. Place two of these sections right sides together and make a diagonal cut from one corner to the other. We will need to make an equal number of diagonal cuts from left bottom corner to the right top corner (these are the “lefties”) and an equal number from the top left corner to the bottom right corner (these are the “righties”).
Now for the triangle in the middle. The definition of an isosceles triangle tells us the two sides of the triangle are the same length, but the base (bottom) of the triangle is different. And it’s the base we will work with first. In order to get the width of the isosceles triangle, take the finished base measurement and add 7/8-inch to it. So, if the base of our triangle is 3-inches, we will cut a WOF strip 3 7/8-inch wide. To figure the height of the triangle, we do the exact same thing. We take the finished height and add 7/8-inch to it. If the desired height is 2 ½-inches, we add 7/8-inch to that and know we need to sub-cut the 3 7/8-inch WOF strip into 3 3/8-inch rectangles.
Cutting the triangles from these rectangles is super-easy. Fold the rectangle in half to find the center and finger press a crease into the fabric. Line a ruler up with one of the lower corners and allow it to meet the center at the fold at the top of the rectangle. Cut. Repeat the process on the other side of the fabric.
Word of wisdom here – for me, this method works well if I’m only cutting a few isosceles triangles in squares. However, remember this quilt?
It felt as if I had thousands of isosceles triangles in squares in this quilt. Instead of cutting, sub-cutting, and creasing the fabrics, I purchased this little jewel:
I don’t often purchase specialty rulers, but for me, these paid for themselves with this quilt. These rulers put all the moving parts of the isosceles triangle in a template, so I didn’t have to fret over the math. Two rulers solved any issues. I simply cut a strip of fabric (WOF) the width the instructions directed, and then used the ruler templates at the appropriate markings to make my skinny side triangles and the center isosceles triangle. This saved me sooooooo much time!
The sides and base on an equilateral triangle are all the same measurement. And like the isosceles triangle, this begins with a strip. Take the finished height of the equilateral triangle and add ¾-inch. For instance, if the finished height of the equilateral triangle needs to be 5-inches, we need to cut a strip of fabric 5 ¾-inches wide x WOF.
Align the 60-degree mark on a ruler with the bottom edge of the strip and make the first cut. Discard this piece. Rotate the ruler so the other 60-degree marking is aligned with the top edge of the strip and cut. Before making any additional triangles, verify that the measurements of the triangle from to top bottom is the measurement of the strip. If there are any errors – such as the 60-degree cut is off – it will show up at this point. If all is well, continue rotating your ruler in this manner until you’ve cut all the triangles you can out of the strip of fabric. If there is an error, correct it before continuing to cut out the triangles.
If you find yourself cutting a lot of equilateral triangles, there is a ruler:
I’ll be upfront here and let you know there are hundreds of 45-degree diamond rulers on the market. And if I were constructing a quilt with a lot of them, I’d look into one of these rulers. My favorite diamond ruler is this one:
This little jewel allows you to cut diamonds, equilateral triangles, and triangles. But if you’re only cutting a few diamonds every now and again, you may want to keep the formula in mind.
Diamonds, like triangles, begin with a strip of fabric. Take the desired finished width of the diamond and ½-inch. This is how wide the WOF strip needs to be. For instance, if we need a 3 ½-inch wide finished diamond, we simply add ½-inch and make our WOF strip 4-inches wide. Place the strip in a horizontal position and square off the end. Align the 45-degree marking on the ruler with the top horizontal edge of the strip and cut. Move the ruler across the strip to the appropriate measurement (in this case 4-inches), making sure to keep the 45-degree marking aligned with the edge of the strip. Make the second cut and repeat until you have made all the diamonds you need.
If the diamond is elongated, the piece will have a left and right side – just like the isosceles triangle in a square. The images will mirror each other. If this is the case, cut a strip the finished width, plus ½-inch across WOF. Fold the strip right sides together and cut, keeping the 45-degree mark aligned with the top of the strip.
These are the formulas for the most commonly used block units. In the second half of this post, we will review the Golden Ratio and Quilter’s Cake. This will be a brief review, as I’ve discussed both of these at length, but the request was I put all my quilting math formulas in one place.
The Golden Ratio
1.618 — this is the number that’s “golden.” While this ratio has been used in everything from art to zoology, quilters use it primarily for sashing and borders. It works like this:
1. To determine how wide a sashing can be, multiply the size of the finished block by 1.618 and then divide by 4. For instance, if the finished block size is 8-inches, it would work like this:
8 x 1.618 = 13
13/4 = 3 ¼-inches. The widest the sashing could be and still look balanced against the block is 3 ¼-inches (finished).
To determine how narrow the sashing cand be, multiply by roughly half the Golden Ratio (.618) and then divide by 4 again. If our finished block size is 8-inches, we would calculate the narrow sashing like this:
8 x .618 = 5
5/4 = 1 ¼-inches. The narrowest the sashing could be and still look balanced is 1 ¼-inches.
You also need to remember the width of the sashing can be anywhere between 1 ¼-inches and 3 ¼-inches and it will look just fine. Anything narrower than the smallest number or bigger than the largest number will look wonky.
We also use the Golden Ratio for estimating our borders. To do this, we have to take the size of the finished block + the sashing. Using our 8-inch block from the above examples, let’s say we sewed 2-inch sashing to the block.
8-inch block + 2-inch sashing = 10-inches. (We always work with finished numbers and then add seam allowances)
10-inches x 1.618 = 16.18
Then divide by 4, since there are four sides on a quilt.
16.18/4 = 4-inches
The widest the borders need to be is 4-inches.
For the how narrow the borders can be, we take the block size + the sashing x .618
Using the example above, the math would look like this:
8-inch block + 2-inch sashing = 10-inches
10 x .618 = 6.18
6.18/4 = 1 ½-inches
The narrowest the borders need to be is 1 ½-inches
Now to get to the total of the widest possible border, we can split that border up into multiple borders of varying widths until the sum of the borders equals the largest width. So, using the above example with a 4-inch border, we could have two borders at 2-inches each, two borders with one 3-inches and the other 1-inch, or three borders each 1 1/3-inches wide — or any other variation which will total 4-inches.
This number is 1.414. I call this “Quilter’s Cake” because it makes the formulas fun and otherwise it’s just one of those geometry numbers used to figure out triangles with two 45-degree angles and one 90-degree angle –which is exactly what we’re doing with on-point settings, but no one wants to remember their high school geometry class while they’re quilting. Quilter’s Cake is used in on-point quilt settings such as the one below.
There are side triangles and corner triangles. The number of side triangles will depend on the number of rows in the quilt – the more rows the more side triangles needed. However, there are always only four corner triangles, because most quilts only have four corners. These are the triangles we’ll deal with first.
Corner Triangles: Take the finished size of the block, divide it by 1.414, and then add 7/8-inch seam allowance. So still using our 8-inch finished block, the math will look like this:
8/1.414 = 5 2/3
5 2/3 + 7/8 = 6 ½.
We will need two 6 ½-inch squares, cut on the diagonal to make the four corner triangles.
Side Triangles: For the sake of example, let’s say our quilt has ten side triangles – three on the right side, three on the left side, two along the top, and two along the bottom. This time we multiply by 1.414 and add 1 ¼-inch seam allowance.
Still using our 8-inch blocks, the math works this way:
8 x 1.414 = 11 1/3-inches
11 1/3 + 1 ¼ = 12 ½
These squares are cut twice on the diagonal, so we get four triangles per square.
Since we need ten triangles: 10/4 = 2.5, which we will round up to three. We will need to cut three 12 ½-inch squares and then cut them twice on the diagonal.
There you go…all my quilter’s math in one blog. There are additional formulas for estimating yardage, however they are all together in the following blogs:
I hope this keeps everyone from Googling for hours to find my quilter’s math!
Now a quick update on my brother, Eric. Many of you have asked how he’s doing. I am so happy, thankful, and joyful to report the stem cell transplant is over. His body responded well to the procedure and he left the step-down unit yesterday and went home. His numbers are well within the normal range, and other than his hemoglobin being a little low (which is to be expected) and his liver enzymes are off (due to the meds), he’s doing very well. He will return to meet and talk with his post-SCT team on Monday, but doesn’t have to return to UNC for labs until Nov. 30. He can’t be around people because his immune system is still compromised. I’m just so glad this is behind him and he’s home. Continue to keep him in your prayers — and thank you for praying for him!
There are more than 400 basket quilt images in Pinterest. If you search EQ8 for basket blocks, you’ll get 50 patterns to choose from. If anyone wants to make a basket quilt, there’s probably a block out there you’ll love. And we’re not the only group of quilters who share a love for this block. Quilters have been piecing and appliqueing baskets for hundreds of years.
While the earliest known quilt pattern is Mosaic – which is now called Grandmother’s Flower Garden – quilters have always been influenced by objects used in everyday life. In all cultures, the basket was a daily presence in a woman’s life. Light willow constructions, white oak egg baskets, schnitz baskets to hold Pennsylvania’s store of dried apples or feathers – all were filled and emptied and refilled in the eternal repetition of housewife’s duties (pg 7 and 8, Small Endearments: 19th Century Quilts for Children, by Sandi Fox). Quilters pieced replicas of baskets because they were familiar with them and gave them names which were well-known to them – Tulip Basket, Basket of Lilies, Garden Basket and Fruit Basket. This occurred with several early quilt blocks such as Monkey Wrench and Churn Dash. Quilters drew and pieced blocks, influenced by familiar objects.
The earliest baskets were on whole cloth quilts. If you remember from my blog: https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2021/08/04/whole-cloth-quilts-the-mystery-and-the-methods/, these quilts weren’t pieced, but were large pieces of finely woven cloth which were layered with a batting and a back and then heavily (and beautifully) quilted. One of the first motifs used on these quilts were baskets. Sometimes the baskets were trapuntoed to stand out in relief to the background. Women who had these quilts or made these quilts were quite often women of time, talent, and money: Money to either purchase the quilts or the funds to purchase materials and have additional household help so they could have the time to make these quilts. These whole cloth quilted baskets were followed by ones in broderie perse.
Then used in Medallion Quilts. Baskets were particularly popular with Medallion Quilts. These baskets ranged from very stylized ones to appliqued ones from plain fabric.
Baskets are heavily used in Baltimore Album Quilts. Baskets began to make appearances in Baltimore Album Quilts as early as 1870 in a quilt from Vermont and are still common in today’s Baltimore quilts. Crazy quilts also had baskets in them, although these baskets were embroidered, not pieced or appliqued.
What does make basket blocks and quilts different from other blocks and quilts is they were appliqued before they were pieced. With other types of quilt blocks, this process was usually reversed – they were pieced first then quilters appliqued them (just like alphabet quilts – the letters were first pieced and then appliqued).
Eventually, somewhere along the quilt journey, either a quilter didn’t have the time to applique a basket or was ingenious enough to try to piece one. Around 1855, the move was made to piece baskets in quilt blocks instead of appliqueing them. The earliest and most “primitive” baskets used triangles and diamonds which were cut from fabric and then pieced. The simplest baskets used a triangle as a base and had appliqued handles. Eventually the baskets developed to the point a triangle was used as a base and then had diamonds radiation from it to represent flowers.
Along the way, basket blocks found their place in Friendship Quilts.
Almost everyone appreciates and loves a good basket quilt. And given there are large enough spaces to write one’s name and a sentiment in most basket blocks, they proved to be a staple in many of these quilts.
The great thing about basket blocks is the quilter can run the designing gamut with them. They can be elaborately pieced or appliqued. They can be filled with flowers or fruit. Ribbons and birds can be added. Appliqued baskets can be woven from narrow strips of fabric or made from different pieces of cloth. I didn’t think I owned any basket blocks until I wrote this blog and began to look back through my personal quilt library.
There is this, from my Spring Tulips Quilt.
This fun little block from my Farmer’s Wife Quilt.
Coincidently, this is the only block in the first Farmer’s Wife Quilt pattern with applique – the tiny handle is appliqued into place.
And this basket of apples in my Fall mini quilt which currently sits in my entrance way.
And this woven basket I’m working on.
There are literally hundreds of basket patterns on the market, but if you want to make your own, it’s really pretty simple. A basic basket block comprised of triangles like this:
Is easy to grid out. This basket is on a 4 x 4 grid:
It’s made of HSTs, two rectangles, and one square.
No matter what size block you want, the 4 x 4 grid works. Let’s play with a 10-inch finished block. Since this basket is gridded on four parts (four across and four down), we divide 10-inches by 4 and get 2 ½. This 2 ½ measurement is the finished measurement, which means we will need to add an ½- seam allowance.
2 ½ + ½ = 3. The unfinished square and HSTs will need to measure 3-inches.
The rectangle along the right side should be estimated as follows:
The length of the rectangle is the sum of two of the finished units – 2 ½ + 2 ½ = 5. Then we need to add ½-inch seam allowance (for the top and bottom of the rectangle) to bring it the unfinished length to 5 ½.
The width of the unfinished rectangle is the same as the HSTs and square – 3-inches.
We need to cut the rectangles 3-inches x 5 ½-inches.
Personally, I want to make the HSTs by marking and sewing two squares of fabric together. This method doesn’t expose the bias until the last minute, so it avoids stretching it out of shape. We need to do an additional bit of math here, so allow me to introduce you to another wonderful formula – how to calculate a HST if you want to make it from two squares of fabric. To do this, you simply add 7/8-inch to the finished size of the square. Since our finished HST is 2 ½, we add 7/8 to 2 ½, which gives us 3 3/8-inches. We need to cut the two squares to make the HST 3 3/8-inches. I also like to cut my HSTs a bit bigger and then trim them down to size (making HSTs by any method can become a bit wonky because you’re dealing with bias). Trimming them down just a bit ensures all my HSTs come out the correct unfinished size. To do this, I add an additional ¼-inch to the formula:
2 ½ + 7/8 + ¼ = 3 5/8.
I’ll cut the squares for the HSTs 3 5/8, knowing I’ll trim them down just bit.
Now for that large HST in the middle. Returning to the grid diagram, we can see that middle HST take up four 2 ½-inch squares – two horizontally and two vertically use this information to determine how big the finished HST should be: 2 x 2 ½ = 5. The center HST should be 5 inches. We can apply the same formula we used above to determine how large to cut the squares for this block unit:
5 + 7/8 + ¼ = 6 1/8-inches, but because I dislike dealing with 1/8-inch increments, I’d round this up to 6 ¼-inches.
Now returning to our basket, we know we will need to cut:
Two 3-inch x 5 ½-inch rectangles from the background fabric
Four 3 5/8-inch squares of background fabric
Four 3 5/8-inch squares of basket fabric
One 6 ¼-inch square background fabric
One 6 ¼-inch square basket fabric
One 3-inch square of background fabric
To construct, you would place each 3 5/8-inch square of background fabric to a 3 5/8-inch basket fabric right sides together, draw a diagonal line on the wrong side of one of the pieces, then stitch ¼-inch away on both sides of the line. Cut along the drawn line to produces two HSTs. Press and trim down to 3-inches.
Repeat with the large, center HST. Then stitch the block together.
This is a simple, easy, pretty basket. And when you think about all the possible designs which could be used, the quilt is only limited by your imagination. You could use contrasting colors
Or go tone-on-tone
Or reverse the lights and darks
Or go scrappy.
They could be Christmas baskets
Or baskets from the 1930’s.
And batiks are never out of the question.
Baskets are only limited by your imagination. This is truly one of those blocks which the fabric can do most of the work for you. Try graphing out a basket block on your own and using the formulas given to come up with your own block. Jump out of your comfort color zone and do something different! You may decide you need an entire quilt out of these sweet baskets!
I collect blog topics. In the notes section of my iPhone, I keep a running list of ideas I want to write about. With most of these I can easily get at least 2,000 words. However, on occasion, there are topics I want to hit, but can’t get that many words out of. These are relegated to a file I call “Bits and Pieces” — topics which deserve some attention, but I can’t write 2,000 words on the subject. I collect these “skinny” ideas until I have quite a few and then throw them all into one blog. Sometimes these topics come from questions asked by my readers and sometimes they come from ideas I’ve read about or developed myself. This is one of those Bits and Pieces blogs. Grab a seat, the beverage of your choice, and be ready to skip from one topic to the next.
I know, I know…there are a thousand different ways to store fabric. Search for fabric storage ideas on Google or Pinterest and literally hundreds of ideas will pop up. One of the most popular is bins.
You purchase these semi-see-through bins and put all the colors in each family in a bin – the reds in one bin, blues in another, etc. The lid’s snapped on and it can be stored on a shelf or stacked in a closet until you need fabric. Personally, this system doesn’t work for me because I must see what I have so I won’t buy the same fabric again…not that I’ve ever done that (eyeroll). But this system works well for some quilters especially those who aren’t like me and don’t have floor-to-ceiling-come-to-Jesus-stashes. However, what makes this bin-storage idea different from all the other ones is this:
A color chart. You can label the bins according to color, but you can print a color chart out for each color family and tape it to the inside of the lid. This chart not only gives you the range of the color family in the bin, but also gives hues and shades.
And for me, what is really the saving grace with this method is it will help you truly sort your color families. On occasion there will be a color which really fits into the category I call “funky.” By this, I mean a fabric could possible fit into several different color families depending on the dying process. Teal is one of those colors. Some teals can fall into a bluer category, some go gray, and others have a green undertone. These color charts can help you decide if a teal needs to live in the blue bin, the gray bin, or the green bin. Unless you have a bin solely for teals…which makes the decision making super easy.
One word of caution concerning bin storage. Make sure the lids aren’t completely airtight (like vacuum-sealed). Cotton fabric needs to breath.
I frequently am asked about pressing. In a couple of recent blogs, I mentioned pressing quilt blocks as well as units and several readers asked how I pressed my blocks, did I use steam, or did I use starch or Best Press in the process. As a rule, I don’t use steam. But we all know rules were made to be broken. If my blocks are coming out pretty true-to-size, I will give them a press with a hot, dry iron before I true them up. If the block’s a little small, a shot or two of steam may help to flatten some of the fabric, and the block will expand a little. I don’t necessarily starch my blocks, because I starch the fabric before I cut it, and unless there’s a lot of bias on the edges of the block, it doesn’t need to be starched again. If there is bias along the edges, I may starch the block — it just depends on how stable the bias is. Concerning block units, I tend to use the Darth Vader method of pressing:
I go to the dark side. I press the seams to one side, away from the lighter fabric. This way, the seams won’t show on the right side of the block.
However, you can’t always do this. The cardinal rule with quilt blocks is this: you need to reduce bulk as much as possible. This outranks any pressing rules. Bulk reduction allows you to quilt (either by hand or machine) without any hiccups. When you have a block or block unit where lots of seams come together (like a pinwheel block), bulk reduction may mean pressing the seams towards the lighter fabric. When this happens there are a couple of actions which can be taken to prevent seam shadowing.
First, you can get past the seam point, make a tiny clip in the seam (don’t cut through the sewing thread), and press the remainder of the seam toward the darker fabric.
Sometimes, you can “spin” the fabric at the seam point to reduce the bulk and allow you to still press toward the darker fabric.
If neither of those are a possibility, you can “shave” the darker fabric. Cut away about an 1/8-inch of the darker fabric, so the lighter fabric has a larger seam allowance and can completely envelope the darker fabric when you press toward the lighter side of the unit.
My absolute, last-seam-standing, go-down-with-the-ship option is to press the seam open. At first thought, this may seem like the best and easiest way to handle the situation – you would have one layer of the lighter fabric pressed toward the light fabric and the dark fabric pressed toward the dark material. Easy-peasy, problem solved. However, when you press a seam open in a quilt block, you’ve exposed the sewing thread. When the quilt is quilted, the quilting process can weaken this exposed thread. Yes, occasionally seam have to be pressed open, but this only as a last resort.
Pre-wounds: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
I think it’s only fair I go on the record right here: I love pre-wound bobbins. I’ve stated this fact in a couple of previous blogs. The question I get asked concerning my overwhelmingly positive bias towards them is “Why?” Why do I like them so much? There are three reasons. The first one has to do with the fact I’m pretty lazy about a few things and winding bobbins is one of them. I dislike rethreading my machine to wind bobbins and then rethreading it again to sew. Secondly, pre-wounds hold so much more thread than self-wound bobbins. Most sewing machines and independent bobbin winders are programmed to only wind so much thread on a bobbin and then stop. And this programmed amount falls far short of the amount of thread put on a pre-wound. Third, convenience. It’s just so much more convenient to pop out the empty bobbin and reach for a pre-wound. It only takes a few seconds compared to the time needed to re-thread your machine and fill a bobbin.
However….all pre-wounds are not alike. It’s important the pre-wound bobbin is balanced (all the thread is evenly spaced – not bulging at the top, middle, or bottom) and the thread used is quality thread. If either of these factors aren’t present, the pre-wound will give you serious issues while you’re stitching. As quilters, we’re fortunate. We tend to stick to basic thread colors – cream, gray, dark gray, black, and occasionally white. Pre-wounds are easily found in these colors. I’ve ordered mine from Superior Thread, Red Rock Thread, and Missouri Star. Besides knowing what color you need, you should be aware of what kind of class your bobbin is. This information may be in your manual. I found this information about Dolly by Googling “What kind of bobbin does a Horizon M7 Continental take”? It popped up immediately – class M.
And as far as LeighAnn the Long Arm goes, I’ve always used pre-wounds on her. A long arm can go through bobbin thread quickly and the additional amount on a pre-wound makes life a little easier for the long armer.
This topic came up at my Tuesday night Zoom and Sew. Most quilters are semi-organized. By this, I mean most of us keep items for projects together – fabric, pattern, special notions, etc. We generally have hand sewing/hand applique tools in a box, bag, or kit. Machine applique notions may be in another box, bag, or kit. But the question arose about “general tools,” such as irons. How do you organize those? In my opinion, I think you need to look at which aspect of quilting those items are used most and store them with those tools. For instance, still using irons as an example, I have the Clover Mini-Iron, three small irons, a travel iron, two standard irons, and a cordless iron (I know that’s a lot of irons…but may I remind you this is a judgement-free blog). Even though I rarely undertake freezer paper applique since discovering Apliquick, I keep the mini-iron with my hand applique because it’s primarily a hand applique tool. My small irons are kept in the area I store duplicate supplies. In this area, I keep extra seam rippers, small rulers, markers, pressing pads, etc. – anything I need to throw in a bag for an all-day sewing class/workshop/sit and sew. I keep one standard iron in the pressing area near my machine and the other is in the bag I take with me to overnight classes/workshops/retreats. My cordless stays on my quilter’s ironing board because this is the area I use to press large pieces of fabric, quilt tops, and borders. The cordless makes my pressing life easier because there’s no cord to get in the way.
I think it’s most convenient to keep general quilting supplies – fabric markers, small rulers, pins, seam rippers, small scissors – near your sewing machine within easy reach. If you have an area for duplicate supplies, it’s easy to “shop” your studio before hitting up a quilt shop or Amazon. I also think it’s nice to have this area to pull from when prepping for classes or workshops. This means if you accidently leave your spare seam ripper or needle threader in the classroom, you’re not stymied until you can swing by and pick it up. You have another one waiting in your sewing area.
Is There Really a Big Difference Between Best Press and Spray Starch?
And I think it’s a personal decision on which one you like better and use. I admit it, I’m a Faultless Spray Starch girl. When I was taught to quilt, this is what my teacher used and as a result, I used it, too. Plus, back in 1986 there wasn’t such a thing as a starch substitute (unless you count sizing). Flash forward until today and there’s regular starch and starch substitutes (such as Best Press) in assorted fragrances.
And despite all of this, I still think regular starch is a better choice. I like the crisp feeling it gives fabric and I think it can stabilize bias better than a starch substitute any day of the week. Overall, I think it outperforms a starch substitute for these reasons:
If you’re a pre-washer like me, once the fabric is dried, the finish is gone, and the fabric has a soft hand. This isn’t a bad thing if you’re using it for hand applique and want a soft hand. However, if you need to cut the fabric for piecing, the softness can work against you. You need to use something to give the material a crispness. Starch does this better than a substitute.
It can save your sanity by stabilizing the bias. As a general rule, I don’t expose bias until the very last minute. A block or block unit with bias which is handled a lot stands a good chance of getting the bias stretched. And stretched bias equals a wonky block. Once the bias is exposed, I lightly spray the block unit with starch and press it with a hot iron. If the exposed bias area is large, I may repeat this step three or four times until the fabric is almost paper stiff. I can’t get this result with a starch substitute.
I have tried starch substitutes for the above processes, but didn’t receive the same, desired results that I did from starch. Starch substitute aficionados will tell you (loudly at times), that spray starch will attract bugs. It can. Starch is produced from vegetables — primarily corn – so yes, it is a tasty treat to nasty bugs such as silverfish. However…only if the fabric is starched and stored for a period of time. If you’re starching your fabric and then cutting and piecing it, or starching the block units before you sew it, the starch will not remain in the fabric long enough to attract buggies. To all those pre-washers out there, don’t starch your fabric if has no further plans than warming up space with your other stash for a while. Wait to starch it before you cut it.
Another starchy complaint I hear is “It flakes. It flakes so much it looks like my fabric has dandruff.”
Well then, you’re not starching and pressing correctly. Here’s how you do it:
Shake the can well.
Lightly spray the wrong side of your fabric.
Press with a hot iron
Repeat if needed.
Most flakey starch issues come from not shaking the can well and saturating the fabric before pressing. Spray lightly, press, and repeat.
Lastly, the choice is truly a personal one and there are room in our quilting world for both containers. Best Press has come out with Best Press 2, which is touted as having the same stiffness as starch. I just ordered a bottle from Missouri Star. Once it arrives and I’ve given it a test drive, I’ll let you know what I think. And if you are Team Spray Starch, always purchase your starch at a drug or grocery store and not dollar establishments. Dollar stores generally get second runs of spray starch and these have a higher water content, which means they won’t work as well.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Marking Tools
Just as sure as you need thread to sew, at some point a quilter will need to mark their fabric. This could be as simple as a dot marking the ¼-inch seam allowance for Y-seams, the diagonals on half-square triangles, or as complicated as applique placement. I will be brutally honest and tell you, if the marks will be cut away (such as the diagonal lines drawn on squares of fabric to make HSTs), it really doesn’t matter what you use. I’ve grabbed the nearest pen to do this, which means on occasion I’ve used a gel pen, Sharpie, and ball point pen. These marks don’t remain on the fabric – they’re cut away – so it really doesn’t matter.
But for those marks that do matter – those which have the possibility of having traces remain for years – you have to be a bit more careful. For small dots and such, I tend to use a Frixion or a #2 pencil. These marks are small, and I need to use something these 60-year-old eyes can see. If I’m appliqueing and the fabric will overlap a marking, I’ll reach for a Frixion. However, Frixion pens have one issue which scares me just a little: I’ve heard the markings can come back and haunt you. They’ll reappear on the quilt if it gets cold enough (Frixion ink “erases” with heat – so sewing enthusiasts love them because the marks disappear with the touch of an iron). And we have to remember Frixions were made to write on paper, not fabric. They’re still so new to the quilting world, they don’t have a textile history. Years from now we have no idea if the ink will leave lasting harm on the fabric.
Choosing your favorite marking tools is as personal as deciding if you like starch or a starch substitute. Try several (they’re all reasonably inexpensive) and decide which one works best for you. I used #2 pencils to mark everything for years and didn’t have any issues. Then I found this:
Water-soluble marking pens. The blue ink disappears with water. This is what I use to mark my quilt tops for quilting and my background fabric for applique placement. Once the project is complete, I wash or soak it in cold water, and it goes away. This marking tool has been on the market for years and has a great reputation for disappearing with cold water and never returning to haunt a quilt or other textile. Just don’t heat-set the ink with an iron before you wash your project in cold water.
COVID_19 has completely flipped this topic on its ear, and here’s why:
Once everyone realized COVID wasn’t just Washington State’s or New York’s issue – that this virus would impact every state in our nation and beyond, the quilt world went silent for a while. We had our magazines, our on-line groups and Facebook pages, but everything else just stopped. It had to. There were no quilt shows, guild meetings, and no classes. However, we quilters are a pretty ingenious bunch. As soon as Zoom became “a thing,” quilt teachers from all over the world learned how to teach via Zoom. As a result, quilters now have the amazing opportunity to take classes from teachers anywhere in the comfort of their own studio. No packing, no traveling, no forgetting supplies.
It seems as if all the “big” names in our quilting universe now have classes and seminars available on Zoom and I really don’t see this changing anytime soon. It appears quilting teachers like to teach from the comfort of their own studio as much as we like taking from the comfort of ours. And if it’s a well-known teacher who is offering classes, it’s pretty easy to find out what the quality of those are. You can Google the teacher or check his or her social media pages and read the feedback from students. But what about the local teachers who are not nearly as well known? How do you know if taking classes from any of them are worth your time and money?
I can say without any hesitation, most quilt teachers – known and not-yet-known – are overall generous with their time, teaching, and talent. They don’t mind answering questions and are eager for you to understand what they’re instructing. But if there’s some questions in your mind, contact them prior to registering for the class. With most quilting teachers (myself included) there’s a supply list and on that supply list is an email address for students to use if they have any questions prior to the class. Contact the instructor and explain what areas you’ve got questions about.
If you know another quilter who has taken classes with this instructor ask them how the class is conducted, if the teacher doesn’t mind questions, and did most everyone leave the class happy with the outcome? In addition to these questions, you may want to know:
Did the teacher design the pattern or is he/she using a purchased pattern? This may give you insight into their design skills.
Google the pattern used. See if you can get a read on if the pattern has been successfully used by others. If no one but the teacher has constructed quilts from the pattern, this can be a red flag.
Does he/she teach regularly at the LQS and other locations? If so, do they seem to have mostly full classes?
Do they see you through to the end? Besides teaching the technique, block, or quilt, do they offer follow-up classes or encourage after-class contact if you run into problems or need some help deciding on how to finish the quilt? Teaching quilting doesn’t necessarily end when class time is over and most quilting teachers don’t mind meeting with you later for follow up.
I can honestly say, even after quilting over 30 years, I learn something in every class I take. And if any of you are hesitant about taking classes via Zoom, don’t be. It seems we quilters have become pretty expert at this. The Zoom classes I’ve taken have incorporated Powerpoint slides, two or three cameras, and videos. They rock.
One Final Thought
Let me end this rather lengthy Bits and Pieces Blog with some quilty advice: Don’t go with your first idea no matter what it is. It’s super easy to get over enthused about a pattern and go with your first color selection. It’s equally as easy to get excited about some design changes you want to make with a quilt pattern and run with them. Allow yourself the luxury of at least 24-hours to make sure you’re still happy with your decision. At least 95 percent of the time, I change my mind during that 24-hour period. I’ll discover a part of the design which may be hard to execute the way I want to. The extra day allows me to sift through my stash at a slower rate and more thoroughly. Often, I discover enough fabric in my stash which will work with my color scheme, and I don’t have to purchase much – if any – additional. Give yourself the gift of time before you spend weeks on a project.
I know this blog contained a lot of topics, but I do hope it helps of you. We’re winding down our 2021 Quilting Survival Guide. If there are some topics you’d like for me to write about before the end of the year, leave those in the comments and I’ll do my best to get to them before 2022.
The first printing press in America was set up in Cambridge under the guaranty of Harvard College, during the presidency of Henry Dunster. From this press, established nearly 300 years ago, started the present printing business of the country, and the consequent thousands of newspapers.
I know this sounds like it has absolutely nothing to do with quilting. Hang tight. I promise it does. Just keep in mind that this:
Will eventually equal this:
The blog this week will serve to put our linear history in context with quilts. During the few years I taught Language Arts, I repeatedly told my students “Nothing ever happens in a vacuum. Everything written, everything invented, and every theory comes from life experience.” And it does. However, the problem with history is quite often we in the present aren’t privy to what exactly in the past affected what is in front of us today. This post will hopefully show how what was happening in American history influenced and changed the quilting world and will define the moment American quilting celebrated its liberation from the influence of our fellow English quilters. And this moment of quilty freedom is found in this:
The humble Sampler Quilt.
We briefly delved into this quilt in my two previous posts about constructing and quilting samplers. What I didn’t go into is how this quilt’s quilty DNA spread to the Signature or Album Quilts
And Friendship Quilts
Sampler, Friendship, and Signature/Album quilts are all intricately woven from the same past, but the grandmother of all these quilts is the Sampler. Without the Sampler Quilt, we may not have ever had the others in the succession in which they came. The humble Sampler Quilt was the breakaway quilt which defined American quilters and their quilts.
By now you may be asking, “Well…how was the printing press involved with this grand quilt revolution?”
Glad you asked.
Once the printing press took up roots over 300 years ago in America, the printing industry served a nation during its Revolution and afterwards, until the 24-hour news cycle and Social Media were born. I can remember as a child growing up in Alamance County, we anxiously waited on the Daily Times-News to hit the door step in the afternoon (no morning papers back then). I could read it before Dad got home, but I had to make sure it was properly put back together before placing it in his chair. Newspapers served to inform us and keep us entertained. As more newspapers and eventually magazines were produced, printing technology got better and better. Finally, sometime around the late 1800’s, newspapers began to develop better graphic expertise. Then some brilliant person (I never could find out who, and I spent hours down this rabbit hole), decided it was a good idea to print quilt blocks and the directions in the womens’ section of the newspaper. This took off and remained a presence in many newspapers until the mid-1960’s. It was this idea which eventually led to the Sampler Quilt. The newspaper would print the directions and a drawing of the block. Folks would make the block. The next week another block and its directions would be published, and folks would make that block.
After a while, a quilter would have a stack of blocks. Sometimes quilters would simply keep the blocks as a reference, kind of like a pattern, just in case they wanted to make an entire quilt out of a certain block. Other quilters, once they had a stack of blocks, decided to sew these blocks together into a quilt – and the Sampler Quilt was born.
Today, we have no idea what a radical idea this was in the quilt world. Up until the late 1800s, American quilts imitated English quilts. This meant most American quilts were Medallion style quilts,
as this was popular among our English quilting friends. Only rows and columns in quilts? Completely unheard of. But American quilters had to do something with all those blocks and a quilt set in rows was the best answer.
Okay…okay… I hear some of you in the back. “What about Crazy Quilts? Weren’t they uniquely American?”
Like Sampler Quilts, Crazy Quilts burst on the sewing scene in the late 1800s, which does make them contemporaries. However, besides just the difference in appearance between the two
There are some other obvious disparities. First, the Crazy Quilt was heavily influenced by the English embroidery and Japanese art displayed at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. American audiences were drawn to the satin stitches used in English embroidery, which created a painterly surface, and is reflected in many Crazy Quilts. The displays shown at the Japanese pavilion of silk-screened work and Japanese pottery with a cracked-glaze also inspired the American audiences. Similar aesthetics began to show up in Crazy Quilts, including unique patterns, and stitching that resembled spider webs (for good luck) and fans. Overall, Sampler quilts didn’t reflect English, Japanese, or any other country’s influence. They were uniquely ours.
Second, technically Crazy Quilts aren’t quilts. Quilts, by definition, are constructed of three layers, which we broadly class as quilt top, batting, and the quilt back. Crazy Quilts have only a front and a back – no middle layer.
By the 1920’s and 1930’s, Sampler Quilts were in full swing and at this point, the differences between this quilt and its European counterpart were plainly seen. Our Sampler Quilts had rows and sashing…and sometimes they were even set on-point.
Around 1890, still early in the Sampler Quilt’s life, the quilt world began to see spin offs. Friendship, and Album/Signature Quilts began to appear. These quilts were gifts of remembrance. Signature Quilts – or Album Quilts as they were better known – were closely related to the popularity of autograph books or albums, which were all the rage during this time. In order to understand the importance of these quilts, try to remember Signature Quilts, Album Quilts, and autograph books were the social media of their time.
Signature Quilts weren’t comprised of only one or two types of blocks, such as the way Double Wedding Ring is constructed. Quilters would choose various blocks which had a space situated in the block where a large-ish plain piece of fabric could be used. In this space, they would write their name and perhaps a sentiment. The Old Order Mennonite and Amish would include their mailing addresses, and often the names of husbands and children. When viewing some Signature Quilts, it’s interesting to note that all of the writing looks the same. This little idiosyncrasy has to do with the fact sometimes the person who had the best handwriting was tapped to make all the signatures. And sometimes the person who supplied the fabric for the quilt, but perhaps didn’t put a stitch in it, still got their name on the quilt as a way of expressing the group’s thanks.
About the same time Signature Quilts gained traction, Friendship Quilts also appeared. Friendship Quilts differ in at least two different ways from Signature (or Album) Quilts. Signature Quilts were given as a token of remembrance. Someone gets married and moves away – make them a Signature Quilt so they can remember all their friends and family. Someone special hits a milestone in their life? A Signature Quilt may be just the thing to celebrate. Friendship Quilts were used interchangeably for the same reasons, but they were also made for other occasions:
They were made as Freedom Quilts. These quilts were made by some communities and given to young men when they reached their 21st birthday. The quilts celebrated the fact the young man had come of age and could now pursue his own career and life outside of his family.
Quite often they served as Fundraiser Quilts. Both quilters and non-quilters alike could purchase a block and have their names inked on them. After enough blocks were sold to make the quilt, the quilt was auctioned off to raise more money. These quilts were made to fund missionaries, schools, libraries, and during the Civil War, many were made to fund the Union Army.
Friendship Quilts also varied from Signature Quilts in their construction. Signature Quilts could mimic Samplers and have a variety of blocks. Friendship Quilts were generally constructed from only one or two block patterns. The simplicity of the quilt allowed many quilters to work on it with little chance of error. The more quilters who participated, the better the chance of selling more signatures, thus more funds could be raised for whatever cause the quilt was made for. Friendship quilts were also made for new brides, to honor someone (such as a pastor or schoolteacher), or – like the Signature Quilts – to give to someone who was moving away.
The legacy of these quilts cannot be overstated. The signatures on these humble quilts can assist in dating it, as well as give a road map to those people living in a community. The reason behind making such quilts gives us an idea of what was important to these people and how those priorities shaped communities, towns, and politics (both local, state, and federal). They are a type of census during a year when there was none. These quilts have helped both historians, ancestry hounds, and quilters put dates to families, populations, and textiles.
We can’t leave the topic of Signature/Album, and Friendship Quilts without discussing the ink used. In some of these quilts, names were signed with a pencil and then someone in the quilt group embroidered over the name. However, a large number of these quilts had the names inked in by either the person in the group with the best handwriting or a professional calligrapher. There are records of inked names in quilts as early as 1830. Today, we take ink for granted, whether we’re writing a grocery list with a Bic Pen or using a PH balanced, heirloom quality pen for signing a quilt label. It’s important to remember ink during the 1830’s wasn’t the stable liquid we’re used to now. It could be quite acidic. Over the years, this acidity has caused the inked signatures to disintegrate, sometimes leaving nothing but holes in the Friendship and Signature Quilts.
According to Margaret T. Ordonez, a professor in the Textile and Clothing Department at the University of Rhode Island, iron sulfate and nut gall (gall forms around the wounds on the bark of oak trees to encase gall wasps’ eggs) were combined to make the basic ink used throughout the 19th and part of the 20th centuries. In the early years, the problem arose when the tannic acid in the gall would harden the cellulose fibers in the fabric. A chemical reaction called hydrolysis would occur, causing the cellulose fibers to degrade. This caused damage to occur over time. Exposure to light and water helped the degradation along. The earlies signed blocks show the remaining ink smeared or almost invisible – or worse yet, holes in the fabric.
People also used other elements to make ink. Indigo, Prussian blue, silver nitrate, madder, potash with wood tar, and lampblack were mixed with either linseed oil, or borax and shellac. India ink (which is made from carbon) mixed with diluted hydrochloride acid (found in bleaching agents), seemed to be the most resistant to fading from either light or water.
Ink was applied to the fabric using stencils, stamps, or (most commonly) freehand. The stencils were usually made from copper, tin, or nickel. A woman would have one made for herself which portrayed her sense of style. It may have her name surrounded by a circle made from feathers or flowers, or it may just be simple block letter. These stencils and stamps were used for more than just signing quilts. They were used to label clothes and linens. Since most women washed their clothes in public places, it was important to mark your clothes. Wealthier women sometimes had their laundry sent out, so the identifying marks were necessary to ensure the correct laundry returned to its owner. Later, as the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, stamp makers learned how to make stamps with changeable letters. We are so fortune our indelible inks are PH balanced.
Today, Signature and Friendship quilts are still made, and often for the very same reasons they began to be constructed in the late 1800’s. It’s a beautiful way to honor a quilter who is moving away or who has reached a milestone.
I received a beautiful Friendship Quilt when my term as President of the High Point Quilt Guild was over. I was the founding President and those wonderful women and men made me a Friendship Quilt from Friendship Star blocks (our guild’s block). They handed off blocks and set up a sew day to make it – all right under my nose. It remains one of my most treasured possessions.