Quilts and Quilt Blocks, a Uniquely American Form of Artistic Expression
EDITORIAL NOTE: Today’s Museum Musings column is a re-print and was prepared by Georganne White, the former Collections Manager at the Museum. Enjoy!
A past donation to the Geary County Historical Museum consisted of hundreds of quilt block patterns collected from newspapers and magazines in the late Twenties, Thirties and early Forties. On the surface, these patterns provide an index of the decade for quilting researchers. But they also offer a glimpse of the psyche of quilters, including those from Geary County, whose creativity turned bright snippets of fabric into beautiful and useful bed coverings in the dark days of the Depression. The shortage of money and materials only enhanced the feeling of satisfaction at being able to "make do" with pieces cut from worn clothing or flour sacks and yielding such a splendid result.
The block, the basic unit of most quilts, is “pieced” from various smaller geometric shapes similar to the pieces of a tangram puzzle with embroidery occasionally added for detail. Size wise, blocks are commonly 9 to 14 inches square but they may be rectangular, round, larger or smaller as the designer wishes. Once the pieced quilt “top” is assembled, it is positioned on a backing layer of muslin with a fluffy batting layer sandwiched between them. To prevent the batting from bunching between the top and backing layers, the quilter quilts, or stitches through all the layers. The quilting stitches themselves can form patterns. Fine quilting stitches, 7 or 8 to the inch, are considered a mark of exceptional skill in hand quilting.
Favorite block designs of the 1930s included flower and fruit baskets, the Dresden plate, and Wedding Rings--emblems of stability in an atmosphere of uncertainty. Blocks with biblical names, such as Job’s Tears and Jacob’s Ladder indicated security was sought within the quilter’s faith. Other block patterns such as Economy, Thrifty Wife, Clamshells and Charm enabled the quilter to make use of the smallest of scraps. A number of blocks were designed to represent things broken, such as Broken Circle, Broken Dishes, et cetera. It has been suggested that the Broken Crowns block referred to the removal of crowned heads from power in Europe. Perhaps some “broken” blocks stood in for the broken economy. Architectural and art appreciation instructors tell us that the mind likes to complete the incomplete, suggesting a fascination with the debris of broken items. From this point, designers expanded on the puzzle aspect of block design. Blocks such as Points and Petals, Crazy Tile, and Interlocked Squares are designs a geometry teacher would love.
Quilting was an activity shared with friends. When one of these friends departed the group for other places, what better way to wish her well than to give her a memory quilt? The blocks of a memory quilt combined piecework with embroidery and were designed to remind the recipient of her quilting friends. Each block usually contained a space where the quilter could “sign” it by embroidering her signature on the block. Other names for this type of quilt were album, autograph, or friendship quilt.
Star blocks were used in quilts with never-ending variation. White stars in a quilt of blue and red bespoke patriotism then as now. The star as part of nature was explored in patterns such as Blazing Star, Evening Star and Morning Star. Other natural phenomena such as snowflakes, a Kansas dust storm, birds, birds’ nests, goldfish, and all manner of flora were likewise represented. Ocean Waves and Storm at Sea blocks evoked the choppy, expanding surges of water whipped by the wind. The natural realm, not always friendly to one’s cause, was a constant.
For children, nursery rhymes and stories were illustrated on blocks such as Sunbonnet Sue, Overall Sam and Little Boy’s Britches. Arrowhead, Merry-go-round, and Crow’s Nest depicted boys’ imaginary games. Young teens often worked on quilts that represented their activities. Several variations of the Four-H insignia made their way onto blocks, as did a pattern called Crossed Canoes. A block called Bridge depicted the four suits of cards. Graduation Class Ring, Fan, Grandma’s Brooch and Amethyst blocks depicted treasures a young woman might place in her hope chest.
Rural life was well represented on quilt blocks. Such patterns as Cups and Saucers, Churn Dash, and Cabin Windows were inspired by the rural quilter’s indoor surroundings. In the same way, outdoor environs suggested the Fence Row, Melon Patch, and Sheep Fold blocks.
The hope of the Depression era quilter was expressed in blocks like Japanese
Garden, London Steps or Around the World--exotic places to see when conditions improved. The developing aviation industry was a source of inspiration for blocks such as Airplane and Airship Propeller, a new mode of travel on which quilters might someday make their journeys. But above all, their contentment to persevere in spite of their lot is expressed in the Spool block. As they had taken inspiration from everything else around them, quilters also took inspiration from the tools of their trade.
Saturday June 25th will be the next time the Spring Valley Historic Site will be open and we will be having presentations on Tatting, Barn Quilts, and Butter Churning. Please come out join us for “Homespun History” from 10am-1pm.
Kansas Troubles Barn Quilt
Painted and loaned by Tom & Char Grelk
Photo Courtesy of The Geary County Historical Society