Red Sky at Night Quilt

When I first embarked on a quilt history adventure, I expected to find a tonne of resources on the internet. I heard snippets of interesting stories from blocks, slaves rescued, quilts donated, stories of war and weddings, that I figured it would be easy to dig up others. But just like we ordinary women make quilts in the present, as a gift, or for the sake of design, without much thought as to how it fits into a wider narrative, or what future generations will want to know about us, the million old quilts out there are often silent. I've written here before, while men's history is The History, the history of politics and war and civilisation, the history of women is often more like archaeology. We dig around and make inferences based on the tools they used, the magazines they read and the quilts they made.
But this escapade has not been in vane. While we may not have learned many women's names, not been able to read their diaries, or have their stories passed down through generations, we have gleaned beautiful things about them.

We know that when the sewing machine was first invented during the industrial revolution, around the 1850s, that women flocked to it, having previously spent up to 12 hours a day sewing and quilting. We know that quilt blocks became popular in America around this time, as an alternative to British medallion quilts, possibly because they were easier to sew in quilting groups, or because the repetition made them faster to come together. Quilting was a community endeavour, the space where women shared themselves and were known.
We know that quilts were the significant way women contributed to war efforts throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. They were sent to soldiers, they made political statements, they commemorated victories and losses. They were stitched from extremely limited resources, and yet still made immensely beautiful. 
We know that women made quilts to celebrate birth, birthdays, engagements, weddings, leaving West, and to commemorate a death. Quilts became a family's way to tell their story.
As pioneers settled across the country, quilt blocks were shared and altered, often without names. It was the introduction of published patterns in journals and newspapers in the 1890s that canonised quilt block names across the country. It was a time of great depression, and quilting boomed as women made do ever so artistically with old sheets, flour sacks, and dress scraps.
Quilts were art as well as necessity, and they carried both titles beautifully and equally. They reflected everyday life, nature, history and literature, as well as political and social concerns. They celebrated the mundane churn dash, and cups and saucers, and riled against slavery and alcoholism. And in a simple mix of squares and triangles, they created several thousand variations of design. They were generous and they were genius.


You will need:

Red: Sixty 1.5" squares, two 9.5" squares cut in half diagonally for the corners, Four 18" squares cut into quarters diagonally for the side triangles.

White: One hundred 12.5" x 1.5" strips.

1. Lay out your quilt on point. Your quilt will have 41 blocks of 5 blocks across the top and 5 down the side. The extras will fill the spaces in between. Take note of blocks with more dark or light colour, and spread them evenly.

2. Starting in one corner, sew a white strip to the left and right side of your block. Press away from the block.

3. Take another white strip and sew two red 1.5" squares to each end. Sew it to another side of the block. This will be the corner. Press.

4. Sew a corner triangle to this white strip. Press.

5. Sew a side triangle to the white strips on the side. Press.

6. Take 3 white strips and sew red squares between them, end to end to make a line of sashing. Add to the first row.

7. You will now repeat these steps in diagonal rows through the quilt. First sewing strips between the blocks, then sewing red squares between lines of strips, then side triangles, before adding another row of sashing. I sewed these in rows as below before sewing my quilt top together.

I used Carolyn Friedlander's Doe Wide for the backing, and handquilted through the sashing, and in a simple echo of each block. I find hand-quilting easier with a queen size, though obviously much slower. I like the look of the thick, chunky perle on the red, but I also wonder if a simple cross hatch design on the machine would have worked well too. Washing it made some parts puffy rather than giving it an even crinkle, which I love. You can see in the picture above that there's a little overhang with the triangles. I trimmed the top before basting, but you could also wait till after. I washed the quilt three times with colour catchers before I felt safe giving it to my mum. There was lots of pink in those babies, and a little bleeding after the first wash, but it was gone by the third.

I made a single Dresden Plate for a side corner and considered making more, but I worried it would be too busy. I think it's sweet there on it's own.

It's a humbling thing for a Quilt Along to be a huge learning experience, rather than a raving 'success'. For me it's been a fumbling, scrounging, eye-opener, not a neat, organised package. But I'm not sure I could have come to quilt history any other way. And it's made me all the more certain of the need to tell stories through quilts and about them. It's been a winding path, but the next leg of the journey feels clearer because of it.

Thank you, thank you for your following, encouragement, and allowing the freedom to grow and fail and learn in this experience. Right back at the very beginning, I noted one of my reasons for doing this was to shake that quiet, persistent voice that quilting was an extravagant waste of time. If there is one great success in this, it is that. I never hear that voice now. And it's why I believe so passionately in understanding our story. Quilt making is not an excess or a passing phase, it is an old art form, once so highly regarded, and deemed necessary, and now pushed to the side as a hobby. I for one am honoured to be passing on the tradition. This Quilt Along has moved quilting in my mind from a bit of a sanity keeper, perhaps even a distraction from real life, to a calling. 

An InLinkz Link-up

This link up is open internationally!

Cups and Saucers - Red Sky at Night

Here we are! Our second last block! I missed last week because of internet troubles and a traveling husband, and decided rather than trying to fight it out, I'd leave it to rest. It feels good to be back here today.
I've been thinking about which areas of quilt history are left to explore in our final posts, and this week I've been drawn to my books and information about slave quilting history. It interests me partly because of the overwhelming tie of 19th Century America to cotton, making it the centre-stage of both American wealth, and ethical and political debate. But also I find it fascinating, because while linked to White American quilt history, the African American slaves also formed their own culture and identity around quilting, heavily influenced by their African roots.

I guess I'd always assumed the African American slave women were responsible for sewing the bedding and clothing for the white household, as well as their own. But actually, it was far more complex or varied an arrangement. Sometimes the lady of the house sewed for her whole household and beyond, sometimes the work was shared. Sometimes slave women were allowed to sew in their free time to make quilts to sell. Quilts became an important part of African American culture because time, resources and rules often limited slaves from learning new skills for creative and intellectual expression. Reading and writing were often banned. Painting and other forms of art were extremely rare. But quilting was expected and necessary, and therefore became the canvas (apart from music, of course) for expressing culture, identity and creativity.

Quilting among slaves was often done together, to provide for the small community of families, or draw in extra income. It became an important symbol of 'togetherness' in a time when family and community ties were often tenuous, easily separated at the whim or need of their owner. Sometimes slaves managed to buy their freedom by their quilts, and sometimes, their creative skills just made them more valuable and sought after by wealthy families. Of course, sometimes these quilts were simple and rough, using what was on hand from worn out clothing and cotton left in the fields, and quick piecing techniques to make what was needed. But sometimes, as in the case of Harriet Powers, these quilts were a place to document their illiterate life, their history and myths.

PowersBibleQuilt 1898.jpg

"PowersBibleQuilt 1898" by Original uploader was Jreferee at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

I've never really been drawn to quilts like Harriet's above. But taking another look at it today makes me wonder how I can bring some of these techniques and story telling into modern quilting. Contemporary quilters have embraced the old blocks as their own. But bubbly pictorial applique remains in a category I have never associated with. Something altogether 'not me'. Harriet's quilt, however, draws on very old African techniques of applique, it was stitched over many night time hours in low light, it was sold very reluctantly for a meagre $5 in a time of desperate poverty. Harriet took great care to make sure the new owner understood each of the pictures, and cared for it accordingly, and she came to visit it regularly, to enjoy it again. It inspires me to make a kind of Great Work like that. Something that draws on old techniques and stories to tell who I am today. I'm going to have to mull over that for a while.


You will need: (after making this block, I decided life is too short to use half square triangles for Flying Geese! Feel free to use your preferred method!)

Red: Two 5" squares cut in half to make half square triangles, one 3 3/8" square, and eight 3" squares cut in half diagonally to make half square triangles. (These last ones are for your geese)

White: Two 5" squares cut in half to make half square triangles, two 3 3/8" squares, cut in half diagonally, and eight 3" squares cut in half diagonally to make half square triangles (also for your geese).

1. Sew your half white 3 3/8" triangles around the red 3 3/8" square as pictured below. First to two opposite sides, press, then to the remaining sides. Trim to 4.5"

2. Sew your white 5" half square triangles to your red ones. Press and trim to 4.5".

3. Sew your white 3" half square triangles to your red ones. Press and trim to 2.5".

4. Sew the 2.5" red and white squares together into red geese as above. Press open.

5. Sew the geese into pairs. Press.

6. Arrange your block as below. Sew into rows. Press seams open.

7. Sew the rows together.

The term "cups and saucers" reminds me of being a little girl, pretending to be a lady. In history, the everyday lives of women, especially the oppressed and illiterate, become stories told, not by themselves, but by their rulers, owners, journalists and politicians. But these quilts are uniquely theirs. And it's amazing we still have them, kept, and loved because of the reluctant sale of a slave woman trapped in poverty. It reminds me that I should never take my opportunity for education, for expression, for the documentation of my creativity for granted. I wonder what my quilts will say to the next generations?

Corn and Beans - Red Sky at Night Quilt

I was amused this week to discover that 'Corn and Beans', the name I've always had written next to this block in my notes, can only be called Corn and Beans if it's made from yellow and green! The block was first published by the Ladies Art Company, who sold mail order patterns, somewhere between 1890 and 1906. Then along came Carrie Hall in the 1930s, and claimed that if the colours weren't yellow and green, then the block was named Duck and Ducklings, or Hen and Chicks, or Shoo Fly, or Handy Andy. All of these names were, as far as we can tell, first published by Carrie Hall, but I cannot find out any more to the story. Did they all have colour codes? Or was she just recording the names she'd come across. Of course, the latter is more likely. Still, I've decided to be rebellious, and stick with my original name.

It got me thinking about rules in art. Which ones we break and which ones we keep. I've spent a little while recently looking through my old quilts, deciding which could be considered 'Modern', and if I'd enter them into Quiltcon this year. I've never really considered myself a 'Modern Quilter' in the strict sense of the word. I don't really improvise, I don't really use negative space, I'm not much into wonky. Am I only a Modern Quilter if I break the rules? Because the rules have served me, and others for a few hundred years. The more I make old blocks, the more I appreciate their timelessness. I like their sharp, classic lines that change mood depending on size or colour or contrast. I appreciate their inspiration and motivation, to tell stories, to fight against injustice, to warm their household.

So then I started thinking about what stories were important to me, what injustices I wanted to fight, what patterns I want to pass on so that others can tell those stories too. What shapes and lines express my concern for the politics of refugees? What celebrates the birth of my new nephew? What retells the old quilt stories that I want to make known so that we don't forget them? The ideas I've started to play with are inspired by the old techniques, much like modern music still uses a key signature, but they say something that's meaningful to me. They break rules, partly to play and see what happens and partly to make it my own. It makes me think that spending the year learning old quilt blocks and their history, has been a bit like learning classical piano. I now have the tools and ideas to compose my own music. I know what the rules do, and therefore which ones I can break.

I also know that back in the day, people changed block names all the time, so I'm keeping Corn and Beans!


You will need:

Red: Five 4.5" squares, two 2.5" squares, four 2.5" x 4.5" rectangles.

White: Five 4.5" squares, eight 2.5" squares.

1. First, take the red rectangles and small white squares. Sit a white square over the rectangle as above and stitch diagonally through the centre. Trim the small outer triangle and press outward.

2. Repeat with another white square on the other side. Sew in the opposite diagonal direction to make a red triangle.

3. Match your 4.5" white squares to your red squares. Sew all the way around them.

4. Cut through the squares along both diagonals. Open and press.

5. Trim to 2.5".

6. Lay out as below.

7. Pair the little squares together into twos and sew. Press and sew those together to make 9 patches.

8. Sew the patches into rows. Press seams open.

9. Sew the rows together.  

It's funny how many times I've wondered what I was thinking making this quilt this year, and how many times I've been so thankful for the process, for what I've learned. This week was the first time I'd likened it to learning my scales as a child.  I know I'm going to appreciate this all the more as I embark on my future projects. And we're on the home stretch! Only 2 more blocks to go!

Hoosier Block - Red Sky at Night Quilt

This block has been teasing me. I found it in a book I have at home from the 1980s. I can't find it in Brackman's quilt block Encyclopedia, so it must have been first published in the 70s when another wave of enthusiasm for quilting swept the nation. It was one of those blocks that I found in my first search for two-colour blocks, sketched it in my grid book, later made it, took photos, and started to research ideas.

My first port of call was to look up the word Hoosier. I'd never heard it before. I was more than a little disappointed to discover that it was a derogatory term for country folk from Indiana. Was is derogatory like 'Nigger' is, or like Redneck? Does Redneck mean the same to me in Australia, as it does to you in the States? I remember sitting in the cafeteria in the international students section of the University of St Petersburg in Russia, chatting with other American students about our different slang for different kinds of people. We had 'occa' and 'yobbo' and 'bogan'. And we had Redneck. But try as we might, we never were quite sure we understood each other exactly. It was a pretty funny conversation... Should I just rename the block? Were the 1980s 'PC' enough that I could trust that if it was published in a quilting book, it mustn't be that bad? Can you enlighten me?

Then I found a lovely story in my new book about quilt-making in the 1930s about a woman named Viola Sanders Webb from Tennessee. She planted her own cotton to make her own batting, she used plain cream, and died, flour sacks to make the most beautiful two-colour quilts, and entered them in the Tennessee State Fair, which had a quilt category just for feedsack quilts. She lived a kind of 'Little House on the Prairie" life, which meant that things didn't feel all that different in 1930 than they did in 1920. It was just always tough. But she spoke about it with such pragmatism, and her sense of design was wonderful. After reading about quilting being fashionable, not just necessary, during the depression, it was uplifting to read her side of the story, recorded in an interview with the author of "Soft Covers for Hard Times."

But would it be offensive to talk about a lovely country Tennessee lady with a block called Hoosier? And where was Tennessee compared to Indiana anyway? Not that far. Except that one would be considered north, and the other south...which would probably make them quite different, is that right? Hmmm. I might have a thing or two I can teach about American Quilting history, but as soon as it becomes about culture and language, I'm going to have to rely on you to fill me in!


You will need:

Red: Two 4.5" squares, four 3 3/8" squares, eight 2.5" squares.

White: One 4.5" square, eight 3 3/8" squares, four 2.5" squares.

1. Cut the white 3 3/8" squares in half diagonally. Stitch them to opposite sides of the red 3 3/8" squares. Press outward and sew the other triangles on the remaining sides. Press outward and trim to 4.5".

2. Take the white 4.5" square and one red 4.5" square and sew around the outside edge. Cut diagonally into quarters. Press open, and trim your new half square triangles to 2.5"

3. Lay out your block as below.

4. Sew small pieces in each corner to the one next door, then sew those together to make 4.5" squares.

5. Sew your squares together in rows. Press open.

6. Sew the rows together. Press seams open.

You may have noticed I was a day late with today's tutorial. Each week I try to set aside time to get more than one done, so I can get a little ahead, but each week, I seem to fall a little bit further behind. Each month, Tim spends a week in Newcastle, trying to finish off his Post Graduate Degree, which is due at the end of the year. And every time he's away (which is now), I find it all the more difficult to hold everything in check. I have that feeling, like I used to at university, walking to the Librarian  with arms full of too many books. And if I let go just slightly, before I got to her desk, they were all going to fall out at once. 

This weekend, as you can see above, I finished my quilt top! It uses 41 blocks, set on point, and I have two that I didn't use, that I'll make into matching pillows. I really wanted to make the other 6 blocks to make up the promised 49 for those who wanted to set theirs square, but I'm going to have to finish after the 43rd. I can't tell you how sad I am about this, partly because some of the other blocks are lovely, and partly because it feels like quitting. But it also feels wise. 

This is block number 36 (I think! Is that what you're up to?) I'll do seven more tutorials and stories and then I'll show you how I stitched mine together. If you sew them on point like mine, you'll have a 92" squared quilt. How amazing! Right at the end, I'll hold a link-up so you can show your progress, and we can see how wonderful and different they all look in the various colours people have chosen.

Thank you so much for your encouragement and enjoyment of this series! I've learned so much, and I can't wait to finish this quilt and show you!

Jodi. xx

Hovering Hawks - Red Sky at Night

I've been buried in the most wonderful book about quilting in the 1930s this week! I had so many questions about why quilting took off again during the Great Depression and I just couldn't find the answers online. So finally I took the plunge and purchased Merikay Waldvogel's Soft Covers for Hard Times. 
I was curious to see if there was more to Depression Quilting than just making do. In Australia during the depression, we made quilt-like coverings called Waggas, made from old knitwear, blankets, hessian, basically anything that could be sewn together into a covering, and then stuffed with chaff or flour sacks. They were utilitarian and rough and charming in their own way. While some were made from leftover dress fabrics, there was less emphasis on beauty or design. They are a striking image of what I imagine the depression to have been like. But when we think of American quilting in the 1930s, we think of pretty colours, a huge variety of blocks, and, now that I've learned a little through this series, an explosion in publications, pattern sales, and quilting competitions.

In her book, Waldvogel explains that the spike in interest in the handmade arts didn't begin with the stock market crash in 1929, but with the bicentenary of George Washington's birth, and a revival in colonial homewares. It became fashionable to style one's home with Early American furnishings. People started dragging out their long forgotten quilts handed down through their families to put on display, or copy with modern prints. 'Traditional' became a word tied with patriotism, family and identity. It was fashion, and not frugality that sparked the quilting boom in the 1930s.
The depression, however, still shaped how the boom played out. When flour manufacturers discovered that women were using the calico cloth of flour sacks for their patchwork, they decided to use beautifully printed fabric instead of the plain, stamped cream cotton, to give them an edge on the market. According to Robert Cogswell (author of the book's introduction), it's actually one of the very first instances of industry emphasizing packaging over product! Depression quilters started to look out for the various prints to collect, not just the best quality flour, or the most reasonably priced. I'd take up baking too if flour came in pretty fabrics!
This nostalgic connection with the past, the chaos of the present, and the necessity to 'make do', created the perfect opportunity for fabric manufacturers, department stores, newspaper owners and entrepreneurs to make money from handcrafts in this incredibly challenging decade. Patterns, marking tools, pre-cut quilting kits, reproduction applique designs were all sold en masse despite the crippling financial conditions. And I'm certainly not judging, or complaining. I love the quilts of the thirties. And I think quilting is the perfect thing to do when everything around you is falling apart. It did make me think though, that 'Hovering Hawks,' a block first published in 1929 by Ruth Finley, was a good choice for today's block!


You will need:

Red: Four 4" squares cut in half diagonally to make half square triangles, four 3.5" squares.

White: Four 4" squares cut in half diagonally to make half square triangles, four 3.5" squares.

1. Sew your red triangles to white triangles. Press open and trim to 3.5"

2. Lay out as above. Red squares stepping diagonally down the centre, bordered by half square triangles, followed by white squares and the white triangle facing in in the corners. Because you have equal amounts of red and white, you can also arrange the colours in the opposite layout.

3. Sew each square to the one next to it, so that you end up with a collection of pairs, as above. Press. Arrange these back in the right spot.

4. Sew those pairs to the one below to make 6.5" squares. Press.

5. Sew those squares to the one next door. Press.

6. Sew these two halves together to finish the block. Press.

I really am enjoying learning more about quilt history. I love looking deeper beyond our assumptions and finding out what really drove these women to create such beautiful works. For some reason I feel a little relieved that it's not as straight forward as "times were tough so they made do, and did an incredible job of it." There are more layers than that. Fashion and advertising, wanting beautiful things, the desire to create, needing to live simply, paying for pre-cuts. It means they're more like me than I imagined. Not just a card-board cut out of American Sainthood, but a person affected by the things around her, shaped by her circumstances, sometimes cutting corners, juggling responsibility and creativity and desire. It makes me appreciate their art even more.