Friday, August 7, 2015

Charm Quilts: Not Everybody's a Fan

Detail of a charm quilt by Ruthie Stubbs
Bresler Collection, Mint Museum

In 1875 the reporter assigned to the Orleans County Fair in Barton, Vermont, checked out the needlework department, finding articles of...
"excellent workmanship and fine taste. The ornamental rather outdid, in number of articles, the useful; but there was a fair amount of carpeting, home-made cloth, stockings, mittens, quilts &c. "

Barton Vermont, mid-20th century

Among those useful articles:
"The charm quilt was present, this time, put in by Maria Marsh of No. Greensboro; No. of pieces 12,054."

As I've said before: "That's a lot of pieces!"

I think Maria might have miscalculated. Here's a charm quilt from about 1880. 

I calculated:
20 pieces in the single diamond rows. 20 x 23 rows = 460
35 pieces in the double diamonds rows. 35 x 23 = 805

Total: 1,265

That seems a typical  number for total pieces you see in the charm quilts of the 1870-1900 era. About 1000 to 1400.

About 600 pieces
Of course, larger patches will give you smaller numbers

And smaller pieces would give you larger numbers....

Balloon launch at a Vermont fair about 1900

Although I find them endlessly fascinating, the Vermont reporter seems to be a bit bored by charm quilts in 1875, implying there was always one on view at the fair. 

That 1875 reference to a charm quilt is not the earliest reference I found when I typed the words "charm quilt" into the search engine for the Library of Congress's newspaper website.

Here's a mention of the name from 1873:

"Newbury boasts one distinguished family. The father has a puff-ball, bigger than a bushel basket, and his eight-year-old daughter has made a charm quilt of 2,450 pieces, no two alike; she has also a string of over 1000 buttons, all different."

2,262 pieces without counting the border
About 1880

I feel pretty good about assigning the name "charm quilt" to the 1870s. But the style characterized by "many pieces, no two fabrics alike" seems older.

Are prints repeated in this mid-19th century quilt?
It doesn't seem to meet the criteria:
"All of the same size and shape, but each one of a different pattern..."

I found an 1843 reference to the style, but without the name. I have no citation and can't find the article again but here's what my fuzzy copy said:
"Female Ingenuity-Miss Jane Craigshead, a young lady of this borough, has recently completed a quilt, which for beauty and ingenuity exceeds any thing of the kind we have ever seen. It is composed of 6,541 pieces, all of the same size and shape, but each one of a different pattern. Any one can judge ... the work there is in it as well as of the patience of the lady who made it, from the fact that it was commenced years of ago, and has occupied the most of her xx moments ever since."...Harrisburg Chronicle
Hexagon quilts were quite a fad in the mid-19th-century
years. Perhaps Jane Craigshead's quilt looked similar
to this one from the Missouri Historical Society's collection---
but with no two pieces alike.

The 1843 story was apparently copied from the Pennsylvania newspaper. Other editors could use it as filler. The editor of the paper in which I found the quote, however, used it as a moral lesson.
"Our opinion is, that Miss Jane Craigshead has wasted years of the period of life most desirable and valuable in a most ridiculous manner, and that if she had been employed in the engagement of useful knowledge, not the performance of solitary female xx it would have been much more creditable to her than this xx xx of time and labor upon a patchwork bed quilt, worth about so much as any other which might be made in three or four weeks. We trust that the woman who xx xx xx time and the opportunity for improvement is entitled to reprobation and not to commendation. ...We ... hope they will find better employment for their time."
All the words aren't readable but you get the drift.

Don't waste your time when you could be learning how to ...clean house? darn socks? sew on buttons?

See other posts I've written on charm quilts:


  1. I guess I don't know anything useful either, lol!

  2. Has that shamed me into dragging out my tub and wash board? um, no, I shall be English paper piecing again today!
    I enjoy your blog Barbara, thankyou for sharing. I love that first quilt, the one with triangles. I just love scrap quilts and old faded fabrics.

  3. I can relate, I "waste" alot of time too.