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Patchwork Quilt Patterns

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nine-patch patchwork pattern

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Patchwork Patterns and their History

Quilters in early America ordinarily crafted their quilts by including little scraps of fabric to a steadily developing quilt top.  This ended up being unwieldy and hard to work with as the piece grew toward its full size. To avoid this difficulty, quilters started breaking down their creations into more reasonable pieces. These pieces (blocks) were typically designed from straightforward geometric shapes: triangles, rectangles, squares, and diamond shapes. And patchwork quilting patterns were born.

The earliest patchwork quilt pattern blocks let quilters use every last scrap of fabric, often very small pieces were used. Some of the first patchwork patterns were very simple and consisted of just four squares pieced together (four-patch). Other patchwork patterns consisted of nine squares pieced together (nine-patch quilt blocks). The greater number of squares allowed for more variation. An early (perhaps the earliest) block using the nine-patch style is known as the Roman square, (aka the Roman Stripe.)

One way quilters would make these simple patchwork patterns appear more complicated was to vary the fabric combinations they used. They would gather fabrics of the same shade, although having different patterns and texture, to create depth and rich texture in the quilts.

Another popular patchwork quilt pattern that has a long history is the log cabin quilt block. Patterns similar to our modern interpretation of this popular design have been found in Ancient Egypt. Evidence of log cabin blocks has also been found in an old English quilt that was dated as being made earlier that 1830.

American log cabin quilts began making their appearance during the late nineteenth century, during the Civil War. The patchwork pattern became extremely well loved. It began to be associated with American values and the patriotic spirit.

The first patchwork patterns featuring the log cabin design were crafted from scrap strips of fabric surrounding a square in the center. If one was making the traditional log cabin quilt block pattern, one side of the block would be made with dark pieces of fabric, and the other side with light fabrics. If the quilter used a yellow square in the middle, it symbolized a welcoming beacon (light) in the window. If a red square was used in the middle, it represented the warm fireplace (hearth) of the house.

Oral traditions and histories that have been passed down suggest that if a log cabin patchwork pattern quilt, that had a black square center, was hung on the clothesline, it was a signal for the underground railroad. This story is anecdotal, but it sure adds to the rich American history of patchwork pattern quilting!

 

 

Archeological proof of patchwork—combining and sewing little bits of fabric to make a bigger piece —has been found all through history. The earliest evidence of patchwork quilt patterns were found situated in Egyptian tombs. Pieces of patchwork were found even earlier in China, with patchwork patterns found from nearly 5000 years ago.

The Middle Ages finds more evidence of early patchwork quilting where layers of pieced and sewed fabric were utilized as a part of soldiers armor. These patchwork layers kept the armored soldiers warm and protected. Other evidence has been found that show Japanese soldiers were outfitted with similar patchwork patterns underneath their armor.

Building on the methods utilized by their ancestors, patchwork quilts started to show up around the eleventh to thirteenth centuries. The climate in Europe began to grow distinctly colder around this time, and families began to use more blankets and quilts on their beds. People began to embellish their blankets. Patchwork patterns were used to make many small scrap pieces of fabric into one larger unit. Layering fabric and batting was a way to build warmth into the blanket, and patchwork quilts began to become more common. The patchwork patterns of quilt making were brought to the Americas by the Pilgrims.

The earliest quilts made in America, crafted by Dutch and English settlers, were not considered the works of craftsmanship and art that we think of today. They were strictly utilitarian objects, and as such, no record of them exists.

In the earliest years of the colonies in America, most ladies were so busy were their chores and taking care of their family that they had little time for embellishing their blankets. Woven blankets were the most likely item to be found covering the early American bed. However, as times got bad, or when funds were low, the ladies had to get creative in how they came up with the items that their families needed to stay warm.

Weaving fabric was a time intensive chore, and imported fabric was expensive and hard to come by. When a blanket began to show holes, a patch was created to cover the hole. If a blanket was too worn to patch, it was used as stuffing between other blankets. These utilitarian quilts were the beginning of American patchwork quilt patterns.

From the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, 1000’s of quilts were created. These early patchwork quilt creations that still survive are housed in some of the most prestigious homes and museums as works of art and heritage. These early American patchwork patterns provide a peek into American history as well as the history of quilting.

American settlers in the early years had no extra materials or time to spare, so they usually found the least difficult, most straightforward answers for issues. This emphasis on usefulness was displayed in their clothing, the design of their houses, and their household goods. The square-style pieced quilt, or block-style patchwork pattern,  was a case of this utilitarian approach.

In the mid eighteenth century, the Amish started settling in the fertile farming areas of Pennsylvania and the Midwest. It is hard to imagine that those early Amish ladies did not quilt.  They prefer to utilize featherbeds, as was the tradition in Europe at the time.  After awhile, the Amish ladies began to have more contact with people outside their faith. This contact with outsiders combined with the need for blankets and Amish ladies started making patchwork pattern quilts with the trademark excellence and craftsmanship that are the sign of Amish quilts.