Friday, March 18, 2022

Variable Value: Mid-20th-Century Quilt Style


This former art teacher might want to bring up the principle of 
value with the unknown quiltmaker here.

Value is the darkness or lightness of a color. Here value darts around from white to black with a few high-value colors like yellows and pink and some low-value dark greens. She might have created a more balanced composition had she considered the value of the fabrics in the larger triangles more carefully.

Values in greens and reds. One reason the classic quilt
 colors are hard to work with is their similar values.

Easily seen when you desaturate the colors
into a gray scale.

 Balance is another principle of design that "refers to the overall distribution of visual weight in a composition. A well-balanced composition feels comfortable to look at."

When my sorely missed friend Judi Warren Blaydon taught classes
in color and composition she would say "I have one word for you: VALUE."
That woman mastered value.

We have a whole style of mid-century vernacular style that threw out the idea of controlling value.

Texas quilt/Online Auction

The lack of balance caused by the varying contrast in value can be quite annoying to the eye.
Some eyes.

Olive greens a fashion in the 1960s, random values in
prints and plains.

Quilt style and composition range from static to chaotic. Some tastes prefer the calm repetitious nature of quilt design. Others prefer the visual surprises of chaos. It's a sliding scale and you can place yourself some place on it. Me---I am way to the right and revel in chaos.

Along with collectors Rod Kiracofe

And Teddy Pruett whose quilts tend to come from
the Florida/Georgia line...

 Ileana Villazon who buys and sells quilts around Texas's Gulf Coast.

And Bill Volckening who buys from all over.

Now, I wouldn't even be talking about this if it weren't for Fawn Valentine defining the style when she was analyzing the data from the West Virginia project.

She describes the aesthetic in the caption for this quilt (see the book, page 90, for a much better photo.)

Laura Griffith Dunlap (1861-1942)
Kanawha County, West Virginia, 1900-1930
"The fabric selection creates a variety of perceptual mutations. The pattern pieces are distinguished by shape, not by value....no apparent organization of color or value for symmetrical value...or symmetrical balance....Order is imposed only minimally, with the narrow sashing strips."

Fawn had many descriptions of the "Now You See It---Now You Don't," approach to choosing fabrics but what we tend to call it now is Variable Values or Variable Contrast.
We discussed it a couple of times on the QuiltHistorySouth Facebook group.

Fawn focused on quilters of Scots-Irish heritage, quite numerous in West Virginia.

Julia Greer Evans (1854-1958), Quilt 1940-1958, West Virginia Project 

But it is something we see all over the South from about 1880 through the end of the 20th century.

Found in Nashville, Tennessee

Teri Klassen has focused on the same aesthetic, which she calls Pattern Mutation in quilts in eastern Indiana, Tennessee and adjacent states. See her book Tennessee Delta Quilting.

Mary Etta & Gladys Brantley, Tennessee

Quilt attributed to an African-American family, online auction

I have a few points to dispute about the whole theory of variable values, though. I do think it is a Southern aesthetic. I doubt it is a taste exclusive to people of Scots-Irish heritage. 

Detail of a quilt from the 1930s by African-American Annie
Pettway of Gees Bend, Alabama

It's not in the blood, the group cultural memory or the DNA of Southerners no matter how poetic the metaphor.

Ileana's Collection
And it's not ignorance of proper design, bad design or "using what she had." It's a conscious design decision based on viewing the quilts in the environment. 

Quilt finished in 1966 made by a 20-year-old of mixed heritage born in New York City: 
Some Irish, some Scots Irish, some German Alsatian, some Ukranian Jewish.

I am an expert on the quilt above as I made it. The look is exactly what I thought a quilt should be. I grew up on the edge of the South in Cincinnati and was quite envious of the Kentucky quilts on my friend's bed when I was a kid. We spent a lot of time under those quilts, playing with them as tents and later telling secrets at slumber parties.

I remember choosing my fabrics (cotton, poly, doubleknit, corduroy, hopsacking) from the family scrap bag for each block. I had bitten off more than I could chew in beginning with a block of so many triangles but what a delight it was for an art student to vary the contrast and see how many different looks the same block could take on.

The strong double border must have meant I'd seen some Pennsylvania or Amish quilts by that time as I corralled the whole mess with olive green and navy blue, the fashionable colors of the late 1960s.

Carrie Hall's Romance of the Patchwork Quilt
was my pattern source and how-to guide.


As quilt books became more available I adopted a different aesthetic, far more mainstream and less creative. And I learned one should make triangle templates, not just eyeball them. (Later, Rotary Cutting)

Several decades later I returned to my original idea.

Several people are better at this than I.

Sujata Shah

Kathy Doughty

Jen Kingwell

I talked about Value Variability in our recent Episode #13 of our Six Know It Alls show.
Buy a copy here:

Link to Fawn's paper (minus photos): "Aesthetics & Ethnicity: Scotch-Irish Quilts in West Virginia," Uncoverings 1994 (Volume 15), American Quilt Study Group.

And her book: Fawn Valentine, West Virginia Quilts And Quiltmakers: Echoes from the Hills (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000),

Watch a 30 minute video by Teri Klassen: Vernacular Design Methods of Tennessee Delta Quilts


  1. Enjoyed your blog today. The quilts I saw as a child highly influenced my idea of what a quilt should look like. And the quilts I make today are still on the familiar static side of things.

  2. Great blog... both of them. I like a small taste of value variation rather than a full out war. I also like to put in one clinker fabric that isn't quite in line when doing what I like to call planned scrappy. And I love, love, love Steve Martin's non-conformists' oath. ;-]

  3. Now for a philosophical, or is it rhetorical?, questions - who does these quilts better, those who never learned the rules, or those who learned the rules and deliberately work to break them? And when the learned rules are being deliberately broken, why are they often reserved compared to some of the older quilts you've shown today (maybe it's the photos you selected for today?) ?
    As time passes, I find my preference in quilts has moved from what quilts "should" be (very well coordinated fabrics, identical placement in blocks) to scrappy quilts (still mostly coordinated fabrics and placement), and now moving toward the ones that break most if not all the rules. Right now they seem to make my eyes and brain happier with so much to look at. Or is it that these quilts show me that all those spur of the moment goes with nothing else in the stash "I like it!" purchases can come together and make quilts that work even though the the rules say they shouldn't?

    1. Excellent point: who does these quilts better, those who never learned the rules, or those who learned the rules and deliberately work to break them? There is definitely a visual difference between the two styles, I guess, based on the maker's intent.

  4. Enjoyed this article! My preference is pretty far over into the variable value/chaos end of the scale, but I don't do it as much as I used to. Thanks, as always, for making me think.

  5. Great article. I too am influenced by the quilts I inherited, and those we began being able to read about in the 1980's and into the 90s. There wasn't much out there, and it was fun to study them. The Lemoyne star quilt I inherited influenced me to love the fabrics of another century.