What defines a Feathered Star quilt block? Is it simply adding an outline of small triangles to a star block?
Marsha McCloskey, the foremost expert on the Feathered Star, laughs and says, “That’s pretty much it.”
She adds, “You can really feather almost anything.” Many of her own quilt patterns feature feathered borders, for example.
McCloskey has been researching Feathered Star blocks for a good part of her career, eventually authoring multiple pattern books and teaching classes all over the country. It was the complexity of the block that appealed to her. “I’d been doing a lot of patterns with simple piecing, and I thought, ‘Oh, this will be fun.’ I discovered that there were hundreds of variations, and I followed that path.”
“There are two basic ways of constructing the block,” she says. One is the LeMoyne Star approach, which leaves an 8-sided center. The larger you make the overall block, the larger the center will be, which allows more room intricate piecing in the centers. This can be ideal for medallion style quilts, like Feathered Star Medallion. Her Feathered Star Quilting Techniques course focuses on this LeMoyne Star variation.
The other approach to Feathered Stars is grid-based. The different drafting results in a square center. “This design is ripe for making a sampler quilt,” McCloskey says. Her Star of Chamblie Sampler pattern showcases this.
“You see a lot of these blocks in the late 1800s, particularly from the 1880s and 1890s in the Midwest. I’ve talked with quite a few quilt historians, and they tell me if you graphed the occurrences, they really peaked in that time frame and area.” McCloskey adds, “You find a lot of really good two-color versions—red and white, or blue and white.”
In 2011, the Infinite Variety exhibit at the American Folk Art Museum featured three centuries of historic red-and-white quilts. McCloskey remembers the exhibit, and noted that there were quite a few Feathered Star quilts in the magnificent show, largely due to how well-preserved this particular type of quilt tends to be.
She explains that, because of its complexity, this pattern was “a little like showing off.”
As a result, these quilts rarely used as utility quilts. “They were put away and preserved, which is why you have a lot of really nice, antique feathered star quilts today.”
Because of those intricately pieced triangles, it’s critical for the measurements to be accurate, and to minimize any stretching. The Bias Strip Piecing technique is a patchwork blessing, in that regard. “This technique keeps the straight of grain on the outside edge, which is where you need the stability,” McCloskey says. “The technique allows your pieces to be very accurate, very stable—it helps everything go together well.”
Over time, McCloskey developed a ruler that did work specifically with the unusual geometry of Feathered Stars. “It has dimensions I’ve never found on other rulers, like the 1-1/16 inch mark I needed for my Star of Chamblie Sampler pattern.”
Another tricky bit to this classic block is that, due to the geometry of its slanted rows, it doesn’t divide into clean, standard dimensions.
“The older blocks used templates, so it didn’t matter that they didn’t match the dimensions on a ruler, as long as it fits together.“
With the right techniques and tools, this spectacular block is achievable. As it was yesterday, so it is today: an achievement block, worth working toward and celebrating.