Sunday, February 5, 2023

Researching a Quilt Pattern

Lesley had a question about a quilt pattern. She was looking for the history of the "Attic Windows" design. Her request for information is an opportunity to discuss "How to Research a Pattern." 

The first thing is to clarify what the pattern looks like. My Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns shows six pieced designs with that name. Above the images from the accompanying BlockBase+ computer program. She said she was looking for information on the second design. 
Number 1366 has three names in the Encyclopedia & BlockBase, shown as a four patch. I'd guess that's the first one we think of when someone says Attic Windows although the folded version, the first picture, also called Cathedral Windows comes up a lot when you look through quilt references.

The Encyclopedia tells you the name and when the name and pattern were first published (as near as I can tell.) The earliest reference here is from Peterson's Magazine---"New Pattern."

Once you find the published pattern source the next step is to find a picture of the original publication: Sources---Google books, Newspapers.com, and doing websearches for the name like:
Quilt Pattern Peterson's Magazine

1862 edition

Peterson's Magazine was a Philadelphia women's monthly published from 1842 to 1898, among the earliest to publish patchwork patterns although you did not get much information in the way of how-tos or fancy pattern names. "New Pattern" or "Silk Patchwork" were their standard names.

I assume this 1860 plate is what I meant. No name. There are many ways to look at the design---you could also see it as a version of Baby's Blocks. The magazines wanted their readers to reject calico patchwork in favor of more elegant silk (usually pieced over paper templates.)

Related design in Peterson's in 1860 with a name Macaroon.

Today's popular name Attic Windows seems to have been first published by Jonathan Holstein in his 1973 book The Pieced Quilt, showing a wool version from New Hampshire from about 1910 in the collection of Blanche Greenstein and Tom Woodard. The name we use today is, as far as we can tell right now---recent*--one published long after the pattern was in use.

* If 50 years ago is recent to you. (I sigh.)

The next step is to see more examples of the pattern actually made into a quilt and figure out when needleworkers began using the design. The best resource for this is the online Quilt Index, which has thousands of quilts. You can search by name or Brackman Number.

Type 1366 in the box above

You can then see when the pattern was popular and when it originated. 

I was looking for the earliest and found several similar quilts. This one from the Tennessee project.

Two from the Connecticut project

One in the Naumkeag Museum in Massachusetts recorded by that state's project. This one has a fragile scrap of a Grover Cleveland campaign ribbon. He ran for President in 1884, 1888 & 1892, some help in dating the quilt. Wouldn't be before 1884.

The square blocks above are all #1366---not the same as the 1860s designs
I found in Peterson's.

What we seem to have here is a pattern that was published but the original reference hasn't been found yet. Or it may have been unpublished as a pattern passed around hand to hand.
BlockBase+ pattern

Online auction

The fancy examples look "end of the 19th century" when silk scraps were inexpensively available. The  quilts follow specific design ideas, mainly a dark square with brighter window sills. Often the square is velvet and the sills are satin weave. Some have the extra seam-covering embroidery related to the incredibly popular crazy quilt style of the 1880-1910 style in silk.

Peterson's Magazine, 1884

At the height of the silk scrap quilt fashion Jordan Marsh in Boston sold "Silks for Quilt Patchwork,"
30 squares for $1.

As far as web searches with Google and other search engines: The search often works better the more words you include.

I  found this one by doing a search for the 5 words
"silk attic windows crazy quilt" as many people classify
any silk quilt with embroidery as a crazy quilt, no matter
how sane the design.

It's in the collection of the Aurora Illinois Historical Society
but they do not know much about it. Looks very much
like the other examples with the dark squares.

And one last research resource:
I find “crowd sourcing” very helpful. Join Facebook groups like "Quilts Vintage & Antique" and show the pattern with specific questions, such as ”Does anyone have an example?” “Heard other pattern names?”

Quilt dealer Julie Silber sent a photo of one from her inventory. Again fabric, style and embroidery indicate after 1880, before 1910 when silk harder to find.

It is almost identical to the Aurora example. Slightly more contrast in the coloring but same embroidery.

So what is the pattern history?
It would seem it was first popular in the the 1880s in silks. Cotton examples appear to be later---20th century like this one from the Beach family, the Connecticut project & the Quilt Index. Easy-to-date black print window sills and claret red squares here are excellent clues to about 1900.

If you are new to quilt pattern history you may be looking for a romantic story. The people writing about quilt patterns in the first half of the 20th century believed that a romantic origins story sold patterns; thus the standards for pattern history were pretty low.

January 29, 1933

Do be wary of any romantic text that accompanies these 20th century pattern features. Much of the information published before 1980 tended to be inaccurate.  The Nancy Cabot quilt column in the 1930s Chicago Tribune was prone to telling "quaint" and "entrancing" tales that must have made up by the art department over beers at the Billy Goat Tavern.

"There is romance in the history of every patchwork quilt 
and in the history of the pattern from which it is fashioned."

Well, there really is often not much romance in the commercial business of naming and selling quilt patterns but don't tell the fictional Nancy. However, it's fun to trace patterns and with the steps above maybe you will be inclined to pursue the accurate history of a favorite.

Billy Goat Tavern, Chicago
I've raised goats. They will consume anything. You do not want them drunk.
Newspaper men---probably the same story.


  1. Thank you for this detailed explanation for tracking down a quilt block's history. Love this!!

  2. I so enjoy your history lessons. The humor always shines through!