American Heritage: Pieced Patchwork
Try your hand at these traditional patterns, pride of America’s past and adaptable for many uses today.
By Jean Todd Freeman (The variations shown were chosen by Roxa Wright, Woman’s Day Needlework Editor)
One rainy afternoon when I was a child, my great-aunt Nancy Clementine opened the dark, mysterious trunk room in my grandmother’s house, brought out two carefully folded bundles and spread them out for my sister and me to see. They were patchwork quilts, one for each of us; we had only to choose.
I can remember vividly the delicious agony of deciding between them: the large eight-pointed star in delicate shades of pink, rose, blue and green; the bolder, more exciting sunburst pieced in triangles of red and orange. But I remember only vaguely what our great-aunt told us of their origin: how they were cut and hand-stitched and finally quilted on the wooden frame that was lowered on ropes from the rafters of my great-grandmother’s house in the Mississippi pinewoods.
A quilting frame that was raised and lowered on ropes? I have never heard of such a thing since. Nor do I know whether the patchwork was done by my great-aunt alone or whether her five sisters helped, or whether the quilts were meant to be part of Great-aunt Nancy’s dowry — she who never married.
I do know, however, that the quilt I finally chose is called Rising Sun. The most immediate appeal of patchwork, for most of us, is its bright gaiety. The most lasting appeal is its bracing affirmation of our own history. For it was the American woman — the Colonial dame in Boston or Philadelphia, the southern plantation lady, the pioneer wife in Kentucky or Arkansas — who took the simple craft of sewing bits of cloth together and transformed it into a true folk art.
Of course, the earliest patchwork sprang from necessity: cloth was too scarce and too expensive to waste, so every odd-shaped snippet of “calicoe” or “chints” was saved to be stitched together to make a larger piece of material in a “crazy-patch” fashion.
But it was not long before women, craving beauty and order, began to plan their patchwork. The haphazard crazy-patch was succeeded by Hit and Miss, in which each piece was trimmed to the same size and shape, though still not sewed together in a deliberate order; then came Roman Stripe, formed by alternating dark and light colors.
From this first attempt at patterned patchwork our inventive ancestors went on to create more elaborate designs — stars, sunbursts, tulips and roses; wreaths, pine trees, and exciting geometric arrangements of truly incredible complexity.
It was a matter of pride among these women never to copy exactly the pattern of a friend or neighbor, and so from each basic motif came countless variations. Thus from the famous LeMoyne Star (called Lemon Star by plain folk unused to the French language) developed the Piney (peony), Kansas Sunflower, Rising Sun, Bouquet of Tulips, California Star and more.