An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections

Rosa’s Log Cabin Quilt [ca 1880]

 

"Log Cabin design. Pieced by grandma Snoddy at home. Mother carried it when she went to housekeeping. Made before Mother married."

Laurel Horton, Rosa’s Log Cabin Quilt, circa 1880

History:

The Log Cabin pattern first developed in the 1860s as a technique for silk patchwork, but it quickly achieved wide popularity and was reproduced in cottons and woolens as well. Quilters of later generations incorrectly assumed from the rustic name that the pattern had originated among early settlers on the frontier. For instance, a writer in 1935 stated flatly that "No Colonial home was complete without one or more" quilts of the Log Cabin pattern. In the nineteenth century, the Log Cabin pattern was constructed as a form of "pressed" patchwork, in which fabric strips were sewn, one at a time, to a foundation square of fabric, then pressed back over the seam, building the pattern outward from the center.

Log Cabin quilts can be made from a limited number of fabrics, but quiltmakers more often took advantage of the pattern's versatility to incorporate a variety of fabrics. As long as the majority of darker fabrics are separated along the diagonal from lighter fabrics, the resulting blocks can be arranged to form a dozen or more different visual effects. In this example, the light and dark blocks are arranged to form a "checkerboard" design of alternating dark and light diamonds.

Construction:

Rosa's Log Cabin incorporates a large number of different printed fabrics. The dark palette is limited primarily to shades of brown; the light fabrics include a variety of printed shirtings and dress fabrics. Quiltmakers often choose a single, bright fabric for the small center squares in all the blocks, but Rosa did not differentiate the center from the other dark fabrics. A single, narrow border of printed fabric frames the quilt, the edge is bound with alternating pieces of two different brown prints, and the fabric on the back is a lively printed stripe.

The lines of quilting stitches simply outline the pieced "logs."

Many of the printed fabrics in Rosa's Log Cabin also appear in Nannie's Cross quilt, which also relies on a light/dark contrast to show off its pattern. Mother and daughters seem to have drawn from a common stockpile of fabric pieces, which would have included new yardage, remnants from clothing construction, and occasional recycled garments. In contrast, Mary does not seem to have drawn from the same fabric collection for a "Save All" quilt which she made during the same period. In that quilt, Mary also used a variety of brown prints, but these are not duplicated in the quilts made by her mother and sister.

Rosa and her daughters had access to an abundance of fabrics for their dresses and quilts. Printed cottons were plentiful and popular during the 1870s and 1880s. New England textile mills produced a wide variety of prints to supply consumers' desires for novelty. Small-figured dress prints were the most popular style, accounting for the majority of the approximately one-thousand different patterns produced by a typical company each year. Agents for these companies marketed fabrics throughout the United States and beyond. In 1875, F. N. Walker, a Spartanburg merchant, advertised that he had "just returned from the North with an attractive line of SEASONABLE GOODS bought at the lowest prices and selected with unusual care. His LADIES' DRESS GOODS are of the latest and best styles, and purchased with a view to economy, beauty, and elegance."

Although it would have been much quicker to sew quilt pieces together on the sewing machine, Rosa and her daughters typically pieced quilts by hand during this period. The machine work on Mary's appliquéd Tulip quilt indicates that the family had access to a sewing machine at this time, so the handwork on these pieced quilts indicates an intentional choice. To understand this preference for handwork, it is useful to examine the ways home architecture, social relations, and women's needlework intersected during the decade of the 1880s.

Published: 19 May 2006

© 2006 Laurel Horton and Southern Spaces