Early American Block-Style Quilts

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The block-style layout—in which quilt blocks of the same size are arranged in a grid—is considered to be an iconically American quilt design, but it is only relatively recently that this layout became prevalent in the United States. How did this layout develop and what other traditions influenced it? This series of three articles explores one of the many influences in American quilting: early European patchwork traditions. The series charts the impact of European traditions on colonial and early-Euro-American patchwork designs, as well as the period of transition from European influenced layouts and patterns to the block-style layout in the United States. This final article explores the changes that led to the block-style layout that is so prevalent in American quilts today.

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The first two articles in this series established the common characteristics of British and Dutch patchwork in the 1700s and explored how those characteristics were transferred by European colonists to the quilts made in Colonial America and in the young United States. A slight shift in the layout of the patchwork in the early 1800s—alternating pieced and unpieced blocks instead of setting pieced blocks side-by-side—laid the foundation for further shifts in the design of American pieced quilt tops. A major change in the layout of pieced quilt tops quickly followed, first appearing in the 1820s and becoming common by the 1830s. This change is the shift from a medallion-style layout, where the quilt top built out from the center in frames, to a block-style arrangement.

The earliest block-style pieces from the 1820s and 1830s look significantly different from their European predecessors; however they often contain two of the major elements of British and Dutch patchwork from the 1700s. First, they are made using the same limited number of geometric block patterns and second, they maintain a medallion-style layout in the color arrangement of the blocks. 

Fig. 1. Early American Block-Style Quilt. Attributed to Rebecca A. Burroughs, c. 1830-1850. Inscription reads: “pieced and quilted by Rebecca A. Burroughs before 12 yrs of age 1832.” Possibly made in New England or Mid-Atlantic, United States. Cotton. 109 x 103 inches. Courtesy of the International Quilt Museum, 2003.003.0162.

A quilt from the International Quilt Museum (fig. 1), attributed to Rebecca A. Burroughs, is typical of early block-style quilts from this period of American history. This piece is signed and dated on the back with an inscription that reads, “pieced and quilted by Rebecca A. Burroughs before 12 yrs of age 1832.” Unfortunately the inscription is vague and it is unclear if the quilt was made in 1832 or if the inscription was added in 1832. Without information on where Rebecca lived, research has been unable to identify her in census records to confirm the information in the inscription, reminding us just how important it is to include name, date, and where you live in your quilt labels today! 

Rebecca’s quilt shares a number of characteristics with British and Dutch patchwork from the previous century. She used a modified nine-patch block, which can be found in the 1718 Coverlet and she arranged her blocks in a medallion-style layout based on the color of the blocks (fig. 2). Her quilt differs from earlier European patchwork in that it also has the less busy aesthetic accomplished by alternating pieced and unpieced blocks found in colonial and early American quilts. 

Fig. 2. Early American Block-Style Quilt with Overlay to Highlight Medallion-Style Layout. Attributed to Rebecca A. Burroughs, c. 1830-1850. Possibly made in New England or Mid-Atlantic, United States. Cotton. 109 x 103 inches. Courtesy of the International Quilt Museum, 2003.003.0162. Overlay by author.

Rebecca set her pieced blocks with unpieced blocks that were all cut from the same glazed chintz fabric in the center of the quilt. She used a second glazed chintz fabric for the triangle patches along the outside edges of the quilt to set the rest of the blocks on-point. The fabrics of her pieced blocks are scrappy but she has clearly purchased a large quantity of the chintz to use in the setting blocks. This feature is also very common in American block-style quilts from the 1820s and 1830s, highlighting the fact that many women purchased fabric specifically for use in their quilts and did not make them entirely from scraps. In slightly later block-style quilts, the makers exchanged the chintz setting fabrics with printed calicos or plain cotton as textile fashions and preferences shifted.

An even greater shift in design can be found in American quilts made just a decade later. These quilts are made with sashing and a greater variety of pieced block patterns and designs. Both sashing and more complex block patterns begin to appear in the 1830s and are prevalent in many pieced American quilts made during the middle of the nineteenth century. Sashing serves the same purpose as unpieced blocks in that it gives the eye a place to rest in the design. As such, sashing can be considered to be a narrower form of the unpieced setting blocks found in earlier American patchwork, like Rebecca’s quilt. The increase in the number and range of pieced block designs found during this period corresponds to a shift in women’s education from an emphasis on copying, such as recreating a teacher’s exact embroidery sampler, to an emphasis on creativity and originality. The use of sashing and the inclusion of new block designs in American quilts during the second quarter of the nineteenth century rapidly obscured the visual connections between earlier European quilting styles and the American quilts made in the mid-1800s.

Fig. 3. Early American Block-Style Quilt with Sashing. Unknown Maker, c. 1830-1850. Possibly made in New England, United States. Cotton. 77 x 69 inches. Courtesy of the International Quilt Museum, 1997.007.0415.

A quilt by an unknown maker (fig. 3) was likely made between 1830 and 1850. This piece shares a number of design elements with block-style quilts that are being made in the United States today and it is difficult to see any connection to the 1718 Coverlet made in the United Kingdom a little more than a century earlier. This piece does not have a medallion-style layout and the blocks are separated from each other by sashing. The Crown of Thorns block pattern used in this quilt is also a more elaborate block design that is not found in early British and Dutch patchwork. There is a loose connection to British block patterns from the 1700s in that the 8-pointed star, a common early block pattern, forms the center of each Crown of Thorns block.

Quilting and patchwork are global phenomena, as evidenced by the extensive research work being undertaken by the International Quilt Museum.[i] The articles in this series have explored just one of the many influences on the American quilting tradition that we continue today. By carefully examining historical pieces we can see the building blocks of our own cultural traditions and aesthetics. While the connection between a quilt made in the United States today and the 1718 Coverlet made in the United Kingdom may not be obvious, we can draw a clear line of evolution and shifts in design that connect our textile art today with the textile arts of the past.


[i] See for examples the IQM’s inaugural exhibit, Quilts in Common, https://www.internationalquiltmuseum.org/exhibition/quilts-common, accessed November 30, 2019.

Janice E. Frisch, Ph.D., has been making and researching quilts for the past twenty years. She is the owner of the business Tangible Culture, through which she gives quilt history lectures, teaches quilting classes, and makes custom memory quilts. Her groundbreaking research on the American block-style quilt is published in the book American Quilts in the Industrial Age, 1760-1870, edited by Patricia Cox Crews and Carolyn Ducey. You can learn more about her work and book her for guild lectures on her website: www.TangibleCultureLLC.com

Photo by Tall and Small Photography.