Thursday, January 16, 2020

Pattern Blocks

Group of quilt blocks from about 1900

Mid-20th century
Most of these are from online auctions

Anyone who collects old quilts is familiar with these groups of assorted blocks and parts, different shapes and sizes. Today they are called orphan quilt blocks (No, they were not made by orphans!) but that term implies they are not part of a family or group.


Wilene Smith gave us a different perspective on the meaning of these fabric documents in a paper for the American Quilt Study Group. A collection of various blocks may have been someone's quilt pattern library.

Late-19th century
They are not orphans

Wilene bought several sets in the 1980s  and interviewed two Kansas women born around 1910 about the purpose of the blocks, for they did indeed have a purpose.

Lillie Mae Hutcherson Webb (1909-2002) remembered growing up in Missouri. 
"When somebody would to to a friend's house and see a quilt that they liked, usually that person made a block, (sometimes) just out of anything just so they had the pattern and they'd make it up and send it to them or give it to them."
When interviewed in 1986 Lillie still had some of the pattern blocks

Blocks perhaps from the teens from an online auction
"Just out of anything just so they had the pattern"

Those of us who have stacks of these one-off blocks are sometimes surprised at how sleazy the fabric is and how ineptly they are stitched together.

Lillie told Wilene:
 "These less-exacting blocks do not necessarily indicate a lack of sewing skills. When recording or sharing a pattern even the most skilled seamstress might sometimes quickly 'throw together' a block without regard to fabric colors, contrasts or workmanship simply to give the idea of the pattern."

Wilene also talked to Oma Myers Haines (1914-1995) who remembered that her grandmother Sarah Belle Maltby McCain (1869-1938) had a big shirt box full of pieced blocks kept "on top of the chiffonier in grandma's bedroom" to be occasionally shared with a little girl.

 "She had the [fabric] patterns basted to each block with several stitches of thread." To make a block in the pattern she removed the cloth pieces and made cardboard or buckram patterns.

Ruth Finley showed some "mill-net" patterns that belonged to her mother.
The stiff fabric was much like buckram.

Oma's mother was a Californian, San Bernadino born, so these memories must have been of a California pattern collection.

This practice continued into the mid-20th century.

Read Wilene's paper "Quilt Blocks-or-Quilt Patterns." in Uncoverings 1986 at the Quilt Index (the photos do not appear).

How many of the irregular fabric patterns wound up in sampler quilt tops,
which Wilene has termed Pattern Quilts?

It was also reprinted in 1994 in Quiltmaking in America: Beyond the Myths (Editor Laurel Horton.)

For another perspective on all those blocks see this post:


  1. very interesting post...i inherited some blocks just like these and glad to find out why they seemed like 'orphans'.....thanks!

  2. I had my Great Grandmother's pattern blocks. Last year I used them to patch/resurface the worn quilt that she made for me when I was born.

  3. Yes, it’s always surprised me that the purpose of these blocks is so poorly understood these days.

    I had an elderly aunt, born on a Nebraska farm around 1895, who was an expert knitter and crocheter. I remember one year she gave my sister a “doll Afghan” — a crocheted piece about 10” x 15”. It was a swatch she’d made from an Afghan she’d seen in which she’d worked out the pattern. She’d subsequently made an adult-sized Afghan, so no longer needed the pattern swatch, so she passed it onto my sister as a toy.

  4. How interesting. And it makes perfect sense. Barbara, does the block in picture #6 from the top, lower right hand side, red and white, have a name? I've never seen it and it's quite unusual.

  5. That is so interesting! Such a good idea when a camera wasn't available - do the next best thing, draw or even throw up a makeshift pattern to remember! We have it lucky these days.

  6. I sometimes do this myself before deciding if I want to make a quilt from a certain block, or when making scrappy blocks.

  7. I have no clue why the idea of sample blocks should be such an "AHA!" moment to me. There are needlework samplers, crochet and knitting samplers, why NOT quilt block samples? It makes so much sense now - single blocks, possibly not the best construction or fabric choices, inconsistent block sizes,....

  8. I've never heard of 'mill-net patterns'. Does anyone have further information?

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