A quiltmaker’s ability to transform fabric scraps into patterned beauty has spanned centuries. A patchwork quilt, born of necessity, provides the quiltmaker with a means to practice frugality while also enjoying the art and craft of home decoration.
Quiltmaking continues now, perhaps with more interest than America has ever known. Through women’s diaries left behind and our old history books, we learn quiltmakers of long ago had a special connection with fabrics. Are we surprised?
Alice Morse Earle (1851-1911), the first American historian to chronicle everyday life in the Colonial era, wrote:
The feminine love of color, the longing for decoration, as well as pride in skill of needle-craft, found riotous expansion in quilt-piecing. A thrifty economy, too, a desire to use up all the fragments and bits of stuffs which were necessarily cut out in the shaping, chiefly of women’s and children’s garments, helped to make the patchwork a satisfaction. The amount of labor, of careful fitting, neat piecing, and elaborate quilting, the thousands of stitches that went into one of these patchwork quilts, are to-day almost painful to regard. Women revelled in intricate and difficult patchwork; they eagerly exchanged patterns with one another; they talked over the designs, and admired pretty bits of calico, and pondered what combinations to make, with far more zest than women ever discuss art or examine high art specimens together to-day. There was one satisfactory condition in the work, and that was the quality of the cottons and linens of which the patchwork was made. They were none of the slimsy, composition-filled, aniline-dyed calicoes of to-day. A piece of “chaney,” “patch,” or “copper-plate” a hundred years old will be as fresh to-day as when woven. Real India chintzes and palampours are found in these quilts, beautiful and artistic stuffs, and the firm, unyielding, high-priced, “real” French calicoes.
A sense of the idealization of quilt-piecing is given also by the quaint descriptive names applied to the various patterns. Of those the “Rising-sun,” “Log Cabin,” and “Job’s Trouble” are perhaps the most familiar. “Job’s Trouble” was simply honeycomb or hexagonal blocks. “To set a Job’s Trouble,” was to cut out an exact hexagon for a pattern (preferably from tin, otherwise from firm cardboard); to cut out from this many hexagons in stiff brown paper or letter paper. These were covered with the bits of calico with the edges turned under; the sides were sewed carefully together over and over, till a firm expanse permitted the removal of the papers.
Alice Morse Earle, Home Life In Colonial Days. (New York: Macmillan Co., 1898), pp. 271-272.