Quilting History: The Most Popular American Quilt Patterns

Historically-minded quilters inevitably ask which patterns were the most popular. It’s a more difficult question than you’d imagine. Quilt patterns were passed by word of mouth. It wasn’t until the Great Depression that quilting patterns in America were really recorded.


But it isn’t impossible. Here is my attempt to answer that question. These are the quilts that were most popular in the United States, and roughly when they were popular.


On to the quilts!


Irish Chain Quilts


Historians aren’t certain that the Irish Chain quilt pattern even comes from Ireland. Some of the first examples of the pattern come from early 19th century America. The earliest seed of the design does come from Ireland, btut it isn’t exactly the Irish Chain that we know today.


The pattern, ironically enough known in Ireland as the "American Chain," looks a lot like a single Irish Chain pattern. However, the squares are on point, so the block designs look like squares instead of diamonds. Historians have an example of this quilt from Ireland, brought by its creator to the United States in 1807.


The Irish Chain design leaves generous open spaces between the chains. Women most likely used these spaces to highlight their embroidery and needlework. The space between the chains also likely featured applique pieces from a bolt of broderie perse.


More modern examples of the Irish Chain use the space for more piecing, though a lot of modern quilters still love to use those spaces for an applique theme. Double Irish Chains and Triple Irish Chains are also popular.


Jacob’s Ladder Quilts


The Jacob’s Ladder quilt pattern has a lot of names. One of its most popular names is Underground Railroad quilt. Most of the pattern's nom de guerres are inspired by travel, like Road to San Francisco. Pioneers expanding westward called it the Trail of the Covered wagon. My personal favorite is Stepping Stones.


Historians are reasonably certain that the quilt pattern’s first name, though, was Jacob’s Ladder. There are tons of quilt patterns named after Biblical verse and this is probably one of the most popular. Like the Irish Chain, it can feature wide open spaces between the ladders that can showcase needlework or applique.


The Jacob’s Ladder seems to be a relatively modern quilt. Historians haven’t found examples earlier than the early 20th century. It’s unlikely, then, that this pattern was an actual Underground Railroad quilt pattern. It probably earned that name because it frequently commemorated slaves’ journey from bondange to freedom.


A great example of a modern take on this classic design is Stitchin’ Heaven’s College Quilt Pattern. This pattern would be great for new freshmen, graduates and any Aggies fan.


Log Cabin Quilts


Log Cabin quilt patterns were and remain one of the most popular quilt patterns in America. They combine simplicity, symbolism and frugality with a rich historical pedigree. To many, Log Cabin quilts are the American quilt.


They became popular in the latter half of the 19th century during America’s westward expansion, and they are one of the few patterns where the name actually fits the origins.


The original pattern was a single red block, signifying the hearth of the cabin, with light strips on one side and dark strips on the other. The light side of the pattern symbolized the sun hitting the cabin. The dark side symbolized the shade.


The design itself is incredibly old. It can be found on carvings from all the way back in ancient Egypt! It pops up throughout history, which makes its use in textiles at such a late date a little odd.


Log cabin blocks aren’t incredibly difficult, but Creative Grid’s Log Cabin Trim Tool can make the process even easier. It comes in a variety of sizes and is available for traditional and curvy log cabin patterns.


Rail Fence Quilts


The Rail Fence quilt pattern is probably an adaptation of the log cabin. Like the log cabin, it’s also a strip pieced design. They’re one of the absolute simplest quilt block patterns to make. Great for beginners!


Historians aren’t sure when the rail fence pattern emerged. They believe that it is an old design. Because it uses only strips, it was most likely created for more utilitarian purposes by people who couldn’t afford whole cloth for blankets and coverings.


One of the earliest rail fence quilt artifacts historians have comes from the early 19th century, but it was known as a “Roman Stripe” quilt during that time.


The Rockin Rail Fence pattern gives the traditional pattern a twist by alternating the color so that the “fence” is implied rather than seen. Instead, the pattern creates concentric square on point!


Lone Star Quilts


There are so many star quilt patterns. Star quilts are an incredibly popular motif in the United States. A lot of these patterns have subtle variations and different names. The pattern’s zenith was during the latter half of the 1800’s, thanks to the Lakota Sioux’s star quilts.


We’re going to focus on the lone star pattern, which is a single star at the center of the quilt. It is also known as the mathematical star, star of bethlehem and star of the east. The Lakota call it the morning star. The star is pieced together from diamonds that are arranged by color in concentric circles.


This is not a design for beginners. Some patterns only look difficult. The Lone Star quilt pattern is difficult. Each diamond in the star needs to be precisely cut and while there are modern tools that can help do that, it still remains an arduous task. The results, however, are incredibly striking.


Starring the Half Square would be a much easier project if your heart is set on a star quilt! This kit uses half square triangles instead of diamonds, so it’s more suitable for those who aren’t ready for such a difficult quilt.


Hexagon Quilts


Hexagon quilt patterns are some of the oldest pieced quilt patterns. Historians found evidence of them in England from the 18th century. The hexagon, or honeycomb, quilt pattern soon hopped the pond to America.


Perhaps the most popular example of a hexagon quilt is the Grandmother’s Flower Garden quilt pattern. Grandmother’s Flower Garden quilts emerged right around the time of the Great Depression. They featured a lot of the pastel fabrics popular during that time and really are one of the most sought after vintage quilts on the market today.


Hexagonal quilts aren’t for beginners. Even the earliest examples of hexagonal quilts were cut using the English paper piecing method popular during the 18th and 19th century. Aside from cutting the pieces, sewing them together requires the kind of precision that few beginner quilters have.


There are hexagon templates, like Creative Grid’s Hexagon Trim Tool. available on the market that can get perfect hexagon shapes. They can certainly make the process easier.


Sew Simple Hexi-Flower is good example of a modern take on a Grandmother’s Flower Garden quilt. It’s a bit simpler than a full hexagonal quilt, so it’s more accessible to less experienced quilters.


Wedding Ring Quilts


Despite the fact that wedding ring quilts became exceptionally popular in the early 20th century, they’re one of America’s oldest designs. German settlers brought the batten to America in the late 17th century. The quilt only became really popular during the Great Depression, though.


This pattern wasn’t always called a Double Wedding Ring pattern. It’s had names like Rainbow and Around the World. It was also known as a “Pickle Dish,” which is the most original pattern name I’ve encountered.


The motif itself is far, far older and evokes the idea of love and fidelity and the joining of two into one.The image became especially popular in Europe during the middle ages, where betrothed wore rings that look a lot like the pattern.


The Cathedral Window Quilt pattern is very similar to a Double Wedding Ring. Both feature interlocking rings. However, the cathedral window emphasizes the inside of the rings and the wedding ring emphasizes the rings themselves.


Both are reasonably difficult for beginners. Cathedral Window quilts also need quite a bit of hand sewing, so they’re a large time investment, too.


Grandma’s Wedding Ring by Judy Niemeyer is a great example of a double wedding ring quilt. Like all of her patterns, this is paper pieced. The Creative Grids Double Wedding Ring Template is also made for that particular project.


And there you are. You’ll notice that, with a rare exception, most of these quilts are from the 19th and 20th centuries. Before that, piecing wasn’t especially popular. Women probably still pieced quilts out of necessity, but it wasn’t an aesthetic choice. I also omitted the nine block quilt, even though it’s one of the most popular blocks in history. So popular that tracing its origins is nearly impossible!


Happy stitchin’!


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Stitchin' Heaven Howdy is a blog designed to inspire and draw out the creativity of the quilter, sewer and the crafter. If you love fabric as much as we do, we look forward to building a great community.  

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