Charm School – March/April 2006

BY Bettina Havig
Double Bit Ax, 80″ x 84″ This quilt form Missouri was probably made from Kansas City Star patern published
in the 1930s. The fabrics used are vintage prints from the Depression era.
Our grandmothers endeavored to make these quilts with no two pieces alike —that’s where the charm lies.
—needlework editor Emma S. Tyrell in a 1929 issue of Wallace’s Farmer
Charm quilts are an often overlooked part of quiltmaking history. They can be mistaken for ordinary one-patch scrap quilts
that incorporate many fabrics, but charm quilts take the scrappy concept a step further, using each fabric only once. Some quiltmakers believe that one fabric may be repeated once on
the charm quilt top to generate the fun of searching for the duplicate.
Stella Rubin speculated in her book How to Compare and Value American Quilts that the charm quilt was linked to the 1850-1870 fad of collecting one each of numerous types of
buttons. Young women would thread the buttons on a string in hopes that their Prince Charming would arrive when they had collected 999 buttons and provide the 1,000th button from his coat.
In the lore associated with charm quilts, each quilt should contain 999 pieces—a feat rarely achieved. Whether charm quilts actually took their name and concept from the charm string fad is
uncertain, but they did become popular following that fad in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
Half-Hexagon Charm Quilt, 74″ X 88″ The half-hexagons can be manipulated by joining pieces as triangles or as
hexagons. This one was constructed by first making groups of triangles. It was made by Bettina Havig for her sister, Fran Baker, in 1999.
Charm quilts have also been referred to as “beggar quilts” because quiltmakers had to trade or beg for fabrics to collect enough to make them. A letter in the March
1902 issue of American Woman Magazine read: I shall be glad to receive from every reader a piece of calico, any color…for my charm quilt, and will return the favor in any way
I can. —Miss Jennie Miller.
The late 1920s and ’30s saw a revival of the charm quilt. Many requests for patterns appeared in women’s and farm magazines.
The Kansas City Star newspaper published a pattern it called a friendship quilt in 1930, and the same pattern again in 1934, when they labeled it a charm quilt. Today we would recognize
the pattern as Apple Core, Double Bit Ax, or Hatchet.
Left: Thousand Pyramids, 60″ x 64″ This antique quilt top was quilted in 1984, and purchased by the author at a Quilters
Hall of Fame auction.
Right: Baby Blocks, 70″ x 84″, 2003 In the 1980s, quiltmakers began to take a fresh look at charm quilts. This is the third quilt
in a collection of six made by the author. “It is just such a great way to chronical your stash,” says Bettina. “It’s like eathing peanuts—not
easy to stop.”
Periodicals published charm quilt patterns with names such as Tumbler, Thousand Pyramids, Tumbling Blocks, Honeycomb, Bricks, Hit and Miss, and Ways of the World.
Triangles, squares, hexagons, and diamonds were the most common shapes used in these one-patch designs.
Charm quilts are also part of the current quilt revival. In 1988, quilt researcher and author Cuesta Benberry wrote in Quilter’s Newsletter Magazine, “New charm quilts are being made at a
remarkable rate.” With the profusion of fabrics available today, the temptation to collect them is almost irresistible, and charm quilts offer a creative way to catalog a diverse fabric stash.
Think about organizing a charm quilt club in your guild or small group. A club offers a great way to collect fabrics. See the tips on page 94 to get a group started.
Left: Antique Hexagon Charm Quilt, 72″ x 86″ A rich collection of post Civil War fabrics makes up this classic
hexagon quilt made around 1880-85.
Right: Clamshell Variation Quilt, 63″ x 77″ The Industrial Revolution and the post Civil War years provided quiltmakers with an
unprecedented wealth of fabrics. This abundance may have inspired and stimulated the popularity of charm quilts. This quilt was made
around 1890-1910.
1. Decide how many people will be in your group. Fourteen quiltmakers make a nice size charm group. If each person brings
size fabrics, every participant will leave with eighty-four different fabrics each time they meet.
2. Determine what size squares and the number of fabrics each person should bring. Six-inch squares are a good choice because they provide
ample cutting spaced for many different shapes. Fourteen 6-inch squares can be cut from one third of a yard of fabric with little or no waste. Six
fabrics is idea. Using these guidelines, each person will bring a total of two yards of fabric (already cut into squares) to swap at each meeting.
Members can dig into their stashes to get started or look for new fabrics to share as they shop.
3. Set any necessary guidelines. For example, the group may decide not to included certain types of fabric such as juvenile prints, solids,
or holiday prints. Suggest that all fabrics be pre-washed before trading and stress that the project is not to be a dumping ground for inferior fabrics!
4. Meet at regular intervals. Fourteen members meeting each month for one year will yield 1,008 different fabrics, assuming no duplications&mdsah;nine
more than 999!
5. Encourage participants to cut the pieces each month for their own projects and to start assembling their quilt tops. Sharing their results each month
will motivate group members to continue meeting and bringing interesting fabrics.
6. Consider making it a group goal to finish your charm quilts by your guilds next quilt show. Deadlines are great motivators!
Kite Quilt This quilt was made with kite-shaped pieces of fabric from multiple decades from the early 1900s through late 1930s. Fabrics
in the quilt indicate that it may have been begun by one generations and completed by another. Sometimes, the explination for a charm quilt that contains fabrics
that span many years is that it simply took a long time and many helpers to collect and assemble a single charm quilt.

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