What Makes a Traditional Quilt "Traditional"

Posted by Elaine Huff on

So what is a traditional quilt? What makes a traditional quilt "traditional"? To find out we need to look at a little bit of the history of quilt making in the U.S.

traditional quiltBack in the days of homesteading when families were moving out west to seek a better way of life, the pioneer women used the good parts of worn out clothing and fabric scraps to make bed coverings (quilts) to keep warm at night. This was out of necessity as they (generally speaking) couldn't afford and maybe didn't have access to fabric yardage. And being the creative types, many of these women designed their own patterns, named them, and shared them with friends and family. 

As a side note, when I first started sewing my clothes when I was in high school, I always saved my scraps because I was going to make a quilt "someday". It never occurred to me to buy fabric to make a quilt! Eventually, I did use a lot of those scraps in various quilts but found that quilting cotton is much easier to work with.

The Layouts for a Traditional Quilt

sisters choice pictureWe can make a few generalizations about how traditional quilts are constructed. The majority of traditional quilts are made up of multiples of a single block, laid out in orderly rows and columns, and sometimes separated by strips of fabric (sashing - think window pane sashing). Most traditional quilts also have one or more borders around the outside edge of the quilt. Sometimes two blocks are alternated in the quilt which can produce a lovely secondary design in the quilt. Additionally, sometimes each block in the quilt will be different but have a cohesive theme so that they work together to produce a beautiful quilt.

The Traditional Blocks

Tried and true blocks used in traditional quilts have wonderful names that usually refer to a time, place or thing that inspired the designer to make the block. Many of the blocks go by different names because they were created by different women at different times. To add to the confusion, different blocks may have the same name. For example, the Ohio Star block also goes by the names Evening Star and Sawtooth (among many others).




ohio star block

while the name Windmill can be used for these two blocks:

windmill block 1windmill block 2 

There are several basic blocks that are used in the majority of the traditional blocks. For example, the Nine Patch block is used in the Double Nine Patch  block, the Pullman Puzzle and Hot Cross. Other basic blocks include the Half-Square Triangle, Hourglass, Flying Geese, Square in a Square, and Four Patch blocks.

Traditional blocks are usually based on a grid system such as 4, 5, 9, 12, etc. For example, a basic Four Patch block is obviously based on a 4 grid set up, but a Windblown block is also based on a 4 grid system. 

four patch blockwindblown block

Of course, applique, crazy quilts, circles, medallion quilts, etc. are also traditional but aren't based on a grid system. 

Traditional quilters usually strive to have the seams meet nicely and points be pointy as it is a sign of quality work - something to be proud of. Now when I am piecing a block, I try to do my best at having everything meet up the way it's supposed to but I usually don't rip out seams and redo them unless it is a glaring mistake! You can drive yourself crazy trying to be perfect, especially when working on a new technique or design. 

Fabrics Used in a Traditional Quilt

Generally speaking, traditional quilt blocks have a unifying "background" fabric - usually a solid or tone-on-tone white or ivory colored fabric. There are lots of exceptions of course! Small floral fabrics (calico) were used in many homestead era quilts. And Civil War era quilts used darker fabrics. Now-a-days, you can buy reproductions of these traditional fabrics to make your own vintage-looking quilts.

But you can also use today's contemporary or modern themed fabrics to create blocks and quilts that are inspired by traditional quilts but fit in with more modern decor and tastes! Additionally, you could use traditional blocks but arrange them asymmetrically for a more contemporary feel.

Quilting the Quilt

So you may remember a quilt made by your grandmother or mother, and it is all quilted by hand. Lovely feathers, flowers, diagonal grids, curlicues of all sorts, all done by hand. Of course, a lot of quilts done in the days before sewing machines were simply tied (yarn or thread used every 4 - 6 inches to keep the layers together). 

I remember my Granny had a wooden frame suspended from the ceiling in a bedroom. When she was ready to quilt, she lowered the frame so she could sit and quilt. Then she hoisted it up out of the way the rest of the time. (That probably helped to keep little hands from messing up her work too!)

While many quilters still quilt by hand, many also use sewing machines - either domestic or long-arm machines. And you always have the option of taking your quilt top to a long-arm quilter and have the quilting done for you! You can still do all the feathers and curlicues by machine or, to make it more contemporary, do fun all-over designs that don't take away from the quilt top. 

When I was first trying to decide whether to buy a long-arm machine, my hubby pointed out that if my Granny had the option of quilting with a long-arm, she probably would have! 

In conclusion

I love traditional quilts! But I have to say, I put my own twist on them to make them my own. Either by fabric choice, layouts, or machine quilting.

Do you have a picture of a favorite traditional (or traditionally-inspired) quilt? I would love to see it if you want to share.

If you liked this blog post and want to see more, simply sign up for my newsletter by clicking HERE and receive a free PDF quilt pattern called "Chained Weathervane"!

Until next time,

Happy Quilting!






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