Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Log Cabin- How Old is the Name?

Log Cabin, set in a variation of the barn raising, late 19th century.
All quilts from Laura Fisher.

Scrappy Bee had a question in January:
I think many people made log cabin quilts, partly because the are easy to do and you can play with colors and settings. Was the block called Log Cabin from the start?

Detail of the quilt above, a remarkably simple block in a complex set.
The floral prints are delaine (wool-cotton combination fabrics).

It's hard to know what 19th century people named their quilts. So few written records mention a quilt by name. Fair records, for example, listed numerous prize winners with generic names like "silk quilt", "patch-work quilt cover," and "cradle quilts." But we are lucky here because we do see fair records mentioning the "log quilt" pattern, also called "log cabin". The pattern was so popular in the 1870-1900 period that fairs opened categories specifically for log cabin quilts.

Cotton Log Cabin in Courthouse Steps set on point, about 1875

Virginia Gunn found that Log Cabins received a commendation by name at the Ohio State Fair in 1863 (the pattern seems to have developed about that time) and again in 1868. In June of 1866, an Iowa diarist known only as "Abbie" wrote that she "went to town, bought Delaine [wool blend] for my log cabin." On the last day of July she "wrote a letter to Sis and worked on my log cabin."

Straight Furrow set, about 1900

Log Cabin seems to be the standard name, but the 1889 Ladies' Art Company pattern catalog called it the "Log Patch". The British authors of an 1882 needlework manual noted that the design and technique were "well known in Canada under the name 'Loghouse Quilting' but only lately introduced in England.…This patchwork is more commonly known as 'Canadian patchwork'." English names also include "Egyptian" or "Mummy Pattern", referring to mummy wrappings of dark and light strips in a similar design.

Display of Egyptian cat mummies at the British Museum.
Is that cat on the left wrapped in a log cabin design or what!

Unusual set

Courthouse Steps Set 
So in answer to your question: We can assume quilters called the block log cabin. The names of the set variations are the standards we use today but their sources haven't been studied.

Zig-Zag set, about 1900

It's one of my favorites and dealer Laura Fisher's too. She often sends me photos of terrific log cabins, the source of the pictures here. Browse her inventory:


  1. great post
    LOVE that first log cabin, very creative use of the fabrics , looks like lots of borders!
    Wow that is a log cabin wrapping the cat on the left!
    I thought for sure the block was earlier than that...one of those quilt designs you think that has been around forever.
    I love log cabin designs, never tire of making them either.

  2. I love them all! It is amazing to see how one block can make so many variations! I have never made a log cabin quilt and I am so inspired by this post that I see one in very near future!
    Thank you Barbara for this wonderful post!
    Mummy pattern... I would have never thought of that either!

  3. Thank you for the information. This was very interesting! I have always loved the log cabin block, mainly because you can set the blocks in so many ways. One of my first quilts was a log cabin, barn raising setting.

  4. There is a 1 page history of the log cabin quilt in the new magazine Antique Quilts from the editors of American Patchwork & Quilting. See page 31. I just picked up the magazine today and saw this.

  5. Amazing quilts..I have only just done a mini log cabin, my first log cabin and already I'm hooked on them..

  6. I sometimes bypass Log Cabin because it seems so ordinary, but your examples are all so different. Love the ZigZag set.

  7. ZigZag set is my favorite, too. I get so excited when I see on my dashboard that you have a new post. I could look at that first quilt all day. It's fabulous!

  8. Barbara I've had a private theory that the popularity of Log Cabins was related to the development and use of sewing machines. I know they were and are done by hand; but seems with that much seaming it was designed for machine sewing.
    Great collection. Thank you.

  9. Buffy - Have to agree with you about the sewing machines and Log Cabin quilts! Also, it is a great scrap user. It have made several and enjoyed each one.
    The group shown here are very special. I have to vote for The 1875 LC lol, but I am a nut on older quilts. Thanks Barbara

  10. Barbara,
    Thank you for this information ..... I knew the design predated the name, but didn't know when the name came about.
    I would love to be able to see more of the cat wrapping .... it uses both Log Cabin and Courthouse Step blocks!
    Judy B

  11. PS
    I read somewhere about twenty years ago that the Log Cbin block was one of the first to be converted to machine piecing.

  12. Barbara-great post and answer to a very common question. Love the cat mummy-would love to know if the pattern survives from mummy days to the 1860s-will be fun to look for it. Thanks--Laura's quilts are wonderful.

  13. The 1876 bound edition of "The Ladies Treasury" English women's magazine has a Log Cabin project, foundation pieced with silk, starting with a white silk square, but is called "Mosaic Patchwork". Curious when the Log Cabin name was clearly in use a decade earlier in the USA!

    Some lovely eye candy in those quilts roundups and the Log Cabin cat mummy is fascinating.