BLOCK Friday: Irish Chain Quilts

For those quilters who like knowing the history of the quilts they make, or learning something new about the craft, you’ll enjoy this week’s BLOCK Friday. Irish quilts are steeped in American history and they continue to thrive as some of quilting’s most popular designs. Plus, they’re pretty to look at and bring a sense of nostalgia with them for many of us. They remind us of our grandmothers and their mothers and grandmothers.

It’s likely that you’ve made an Irish Chain quilt yourself, know someone who has made one or have a keepsake quilt that has been in your family for generations. An Irish Chain quilt top features an overall design of squares (primary pattern) that creates a linked design (secondary pattern) across the quilt top. There are a few different types of secondary patterns known simply as single, double, and triple chains. Let’s take a look at some quilts before resuming the history lesson.

Caroline's Chair Quilt

Bed-Size Quilt Patterns
Caroline’s Chain by Cyndi Hershey

You can see an example of a double Irish Chain quilt pattern in Caroline’s Chain. The dark pink and light pink Nine-Patches are arranged in such a way that they create one main chain (dark pink) with two chains (light pink) on either side of the main chain. You’ll notice here that Nine-Patches are arranged to make a traditional chain. In order to create this design, the middle and corner squares are the same color with each repetition. Of course, in today’s quilting world, there are modifications that allow for some diversity in this department. But, if we’re discussing old-fashioned quilts, this is commonplace.

Liz's Irish Chain Quilt
Liz's Irish Chain Quilt
Liz’s Irish Chain by Liz Porter

Another double Irish Chain quilt is seen in the quilt above by Liz Porter. You can see contemporary times creeping into this design, as the main chain is a variety of colors. It works here, as you can see, since the second chain in is a consistent tone as is the background fabric. Liz’s Irish Chain is a fun one to make — it allows you to use up your stash, making this a lovely scrap quilt pattern that has a traditional look. Using strip sets for this particular quilt narrows down prep time, as well — a sigh of relief for those who don’t relish the thought of lots of tiny squares.

Irish Chain Quilt

Throw Quilt Patterns
Irish Chain by Christa Smith

The Irish Chain featured in Quilty Summer 2012 is a bit simpler than Liz’s Irish Chain, and because of it’s simpler design, is a great starting point for quilters interested in trying their hand at this type of quilt. This red and white quilt is classic Americana and makes a lovely throw quilt. Who doesn’t love two-color quilts that scream tradition?

Bandana Chain Quilt Project

Bandana Chain Quilt - Irish Quilts
Bandana Chain by Diane Tomlinson

Finally, the contemporary Irish Chain quilt. Again, we have a scrappy quilt pattern, like Liz’s quilt above, but the colors aren’t as concise when forming the chains. There’s still a primary design that comes through in this quilt, but the secondary design is quite prominent. The geometric shapes in a neutral background fabric add a ton of interest to this lovely quilt. Bandana Chain is a generously sized twin quilt made with stripes, plaids, and florals for a charming traditional look with a spin.

1786 -- Single Irish Chain Quilt
1786 Elizabeth Nace quilt — Collection: Lancaster Quilt & Textile Museum
Gunter's chain -- BLOCK Friday: Irish Quilts
Surveyor’s chain: one chain equals 66 ft. / 100 links

These quilts have such an incredible history, and it’s awesome to see quilts from the past and the quilts of today using the same design aspects. Here’s a bit more on their history:

The Irish began heavily immigrating to the Unites States in the mid-1800s, and when the Civil War began, they formed their own brigades with an estimated 140,000 Irish soldiers fighting for the Union. But, what connection do they have to quilts? No doubt, large Irish populations found in cities like Boston and New York, shared their cultural backgrounds with others, even down to their tools. The Irish used a tool called an Irish Chain (Gunter’s chain or surveying chain) — a measuring device used for land surveying made up of linked sections that fit together to form a single chain. Replace links with squares and you have our BLOCK Friday quilt! We see Irish Chain quilts predating the 1800s, although it’s unclear what they were called at that time. As with many quilt blocks and styles, the Irish Chain quilt name was borrowed at a later date, and likely originated with this tool.1

Aren’t Irish quilts fantastic? Share your experiences below in the comments and share your photos on the Love of Quilting Facebook page!

Carrie Sisk, Online Editor, Fons & Porter


Happy Quilting!

Carrie Sisk, Fons & Porter, Online Editor


1Brackman, B. (2011, July 2). Civil War Quilts: Reproduction Quilts and Fabric from Barbara Brackman [Web log post]. Retrieved from

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Carrie Sisk

About Carrie Sisk

Carrie's first sewing machine was a gift from her dad—a better gift was never given. A crafter, trained pianist and experienced paintballer, when the opportunity arises, she's hiking in Yosemite or Rocky Mountain National Park.

3 thoughts on “BLOCK Friday: Irish Chain Quilts

  1. The very first quilt I ever worked on was a hand pieced 1940’s -50’s small squares triple Irish Chain my grandmother started out of our old clothes and other pieces. She hand pieced the top. I can find a bit of my brother’s pj’s in it. I hand quilted the quilt and my daughter did the binding. Three generations worked on that quilt. It’s my pride and joy. I began work on it in 2000. My dad had kept it in a trunk and gave it to me in the 70’s but I was not a quilter then. The Irish Chain has become my favorite.