Thursday, August 26, 2010

Hoo Doo, Humility and Deliberate Mistakes

I've been saving pictures from online quilt sales in which the dealer advertises a HOO-DOO block or a HUMILITY BLOCK in the patterning. The quilt top above has an error in the top left hand block. A triangle is switched.

Here's one advertised as having hoo-doo block. I believe she is referring to a break in the patterning. Notice the blank peach-colored blocks at top left and in the second space up on the bottom right.

In this quilt from about 1900 the break in the patterning is a completely different design in the lower left hand corner.

I bring this up because I have carpenters working on my porch. One installed two of the three hinges on the screen door going one way and the third upside down. I pointed out this error to another carpenter. He shrugged and said, "It's a deliberate error for good luck."

Translation: "I don't want to fix it."

It's hard to see the error in this quilt from about 1900 so I put a red star on it in the lower row.

The phrase humility block alludes to the idea that in some religions it is considered too proud to attempt perfection, therefore one makes a deliberate error to prove to the deity that one is not perfect. (Exactly what religions is vague.)

But we can trace the idea all the way back to Arachne, an uppity human in Greco-Roman mythology, who was too proud of her weaving skills. She challenged the Goddess of Craft to a weaving duel, a bad choice on her part. Her weaving was perfection and the jealous Goddess turned her into a spider.

Those of us who make quilts know errors are all too easy to make. 

Jean made this quilt for a pattern sample. None of us noticed the error (not the pattern drafter, the seamstress, the quilter or the editor) until we had it on the wall for photography.
The error is in the lower right area along the edge. She flipped a strip of triangles.

The errors tend to be accidental. The stories about hoo-doo and humility blocks tend to be hype designed to sell quilts.

Log Cabin, about 1900.

Remember that symmetry was not so important to people making quilts to use on a bed.
Don't fall into the trap of using your standards for perfection to interpret quilts from the past.


  1. I know I don't have to make a deliberate mistake .... it's far too easy to make an accidental mistake. I suspect the story persists to help us all cover up the accidentals!

    Judy B

  2. Interesting about Arachne. The Navajo believe Spider woman gave them the art of weaving rugs. I love the knowledge I garner from your posts. I am about to do some crazy quilting for the first time and a spider seems like it needs to be included.

  3. A deliberate mistake seems to look like an intentional mistake - I mistake "how did that happen" after everything is sew and you say "time to move on, it's staying that way" are the best mistakes and often add to the quilt.

  4. I generally agree that most humility blocks were just accidents. It's fun to see them. Makes me feel like a true quilter! LOL

  5. At high school in Australia, I never received higher than 19½ out of 20 for an essay. This was because English was an art and therefore 20 out of 20 was beyond mere mortals.
    It never made sense if I could get 100% in other subjects(sciences maths etc).
    This was in the 1970's.

  6. I love looking for the one variation/mistake in antique quilts, regardless of the origin or cause. Kind of a "where's Waldo" thing, and on one occasion, I found by chance a single turned piece on an antique that my friend had owned for years and never noticed. She liked it, fortunately. It's a fun part of the quilt mystique.

  7. Okay I like the idea of saying it was on purpose... hahaha! "No dear, this is not a boo boo it is a hoo doo humility deliberate mistake! ;-)
    I too have seen some of these on my old quilts but they just endear them to me more.
    Now on that door hinge..just fix it buddy... hahaha!!

  8. I have a pie safe with six punched tin square panels, three on each door. One day I was contemplating something else as I was staring at the front of the pie safe. Suddenly I noticed that the lower left panel was upside down compared to the other five panels. It had been too long since I bought it to make the manufacturer responsible but I paid a goodly sum and ended up with a less than perfect product. No, humility block here, a deffinite mistake. I keep thinking I'll take it out and turn it around someday..............

  9. It's the "hoo-hoo" blocks that give the quilt charm and personality to me.

  10. I sometimes find turned blocks if I am doing custom quilting. All of a sudden the pattern isn't working! It's tricky sometimes, but too last to fix the piecing. I love all the vintage pieces you show, so inspirational.

  11. It is an interesting issue to ponder. I am always skeptical when a dealer claims to be able to read the long gone and undocumented quilter's mind but quilter's today do include the intentional mistake block to mimic the folklore of the humility block. One wonders when that myth began. I have also heard that religious quilters would never imply that they were, indeed, so perfect that they had to make an intentional error. Love today's thought provoking post!

  12. I'm happy that you are addressing this fable of quiltmaking, and hope it's widely read! No handmade item can be perfect, and it's the imperfections that appeal.
    Hadn't heard the term, "hoo-doo" before - always something new to learn.

  13. Oh dear that log cabin just has too much going wrong :-)...

  14. It's the simple, accidental errors that give antique (and indeed all) quilts their charm. I lament that our culture's current obsession with perfection is eroding our individuality (look at botox, tooth veneers etc) and perhaps even our creativity.

    I for one love the quirky "mistakes" that give a quilt it's uniqueness and personality.

  15. Interesting post...thank you for the bits of history. Never heard the terms "hoo-doo" or "humility" block...Thanks!

  16. I always get a bit chuffed when books still quote that "humility block" theory as fact. And the one about 13 quilts for a wedding chest. Once these romantic stories get started, they become like urban myths!
    To err is human; that's why we find mistakes in quilts!

  17. I did a post about a week ago with a quilt I bought off Ebay where the seller advertised that it contained a "rare deliberate mistake." I made me laugh to think she was able to read the mind of a quilter who was long gone. It's a great quilt but who know why that one star is the way it is.

  18. Advice to self: "Finish the !!!###***!!! quilt!"

  19. Mistake? Humility?? Just messing with our heads is more like it. I love how a it adds a touch of irrevrence to a quilt.

  20. Mistake? Humility?? Just messing with our heads is more like it. I love how a it adds a touch of irrevrence to a quilt.

  21. I often wonder if bad lighting was the cause of some errors? candle light or gas lanterns? Even in the 60s my grandmother was too cheap to do hand work or reading in the evening, that was for daylight! Evenings they sat in the dark and watched TV!