Hexagons are the easiest shape to use for patchwork using the English Paper Piecing (or mosaic patchwork) method. There are many ways hexagons can be combined into different patterns, but the most common is the double rosette set into a background path, known as “Grandmother’s Flower Garden”.
As shown here, one hexagon at the centre is surrounded by a ring of six, and then a second ring of twelve hexagons.
Many people have started a patchwork quilt in this design – but a surprising number of them linger as unfinished tops. One reason for this may be that fitting them together is not quite as simple as it first appears – there are a few pitfalls which can create problems.
In this blog, I am going to explain why these difficulties arise, using links to examples from the Quilters Guild Collection to illustrate which arrangements work beautifully – and which don’t!.
The first two unfinished items in the list below are colourful – but look at the arrangement carefully. Both seem to need randomly placed extra hexagons to fill gaps – and the GFG units don’t seem to be placed regularly. Read on to see why they struggled.
My diagrams are in shades of grey, as the placing of Light, Medium and Dark can be affected by which layout you choose. (Note that if you would like to learn more about using colour “value” to plan your quilts, have a look at “Colour and Contrast“).
A hexagon, of course, has six-fold symmetry, and we are usually trying to make our final design either square or rectangular (i.e. four-fold symmetry). If I place the hexagon with a flat side at the top and bottom, it has points at the side. No matter how many extra hexagons I stitch onto it, this won’t change – so what happens vertically is usually different to what happens horizontally.
Two Grandmother’s Flower Garden units can join together on the flat side at the middle of the top and bottom, as shown to the right:
That is essentially what the maker of this piece has done (but notice that she also needed plenty of filler hexagons): Music Papers Hexagons Fragment
However, if we place two GFG units side by side, with the centres lined up, the points will touch, and leave diamond spaces. (It is perfectly possible to combine diamonds with hexagons, but in this blog, I just want to explore tessellating with hexagons only).
To make them touch everywhere, one of the GFG units needs to be shifted up a little as shown here – now they will fit properly.
This initially looks OK, but the more you stitch them together like this, the more a problem emerges.
Look carefully – did you notice that the rows of hexagons are gradually drifting up?
That is why this patchwork looks slightly twisted – the makers has done this, without realising until it is too late. Glitter Hexagons Fragment Maybe that’s why she gave up?
And have another look at the Music Papers Hexagons Fragment
Look at the rows going sideways – did you notice the upward drift in sections, then an attempt to bring down again?
Unfortunately it doesn’t work if you make them alternately shift up and down – there is a gap (where I have put the two red hexagons!)
To tessellate more effectively, spacer hexagons of a background colour must be used, so that the main GFG units can now be lined up along the centre axis again – you don’t notice that the background hexagons are offset.
Extending these background hexagons all round leads to the most common arrangement, with a “path”:
Using spacer hexagons in a contrasting background colour allow a good line-up of the centre of all GFG units in rows horizontally, with GFG units on alternating rows offset by a half a unit.
Note this needs GFG units with Dark or Medium fabrics on all the outer rings against light background or vice-versa. This is where many people unintentionally make difficulties for themselves, as they make up a variety of units before deciding how to combine them – and inevitably many will not show up well against the background colour.
Here are some much more successful antique quilts from the Quilters’ Guild Collection which use this design:
- Manchester Hexagon Quilt
- Hexagon Star and Rosettes Top
- Early printed cottons hexagon coverlet
- Hexagon Frame Top
Note how half GFG units (two sorts) at needed at the edges to make a rectangular quilt.
I have a lovely example (which does also include diamonds and equilateral triangles, but the principle is similar) in my Collection:
You can see more pictures and discover more about the lady who made it at Illona Jones’ coverlet
There are other ways to use hexagons as fillers in a more effectively planned way than some of the earlier examples:
It is possible to line up the GFG units vertically, with the top and bottom flat edges joined flush. The next column will be offset by half a unit, and the gaps filled with three hexagon background units.
Note that for smaller GFG units with only one ring, this arrangement requires single background hexagons:
This is an alternative arrangement for the smaller GFG units with only one ring.
Can you see that this arrangement requires a smaller number of single background hexagons?
Here are two more quilts from the Quilters’ Guild which use this type of arrangement:
I have another patchwork top in my Collection which uses yet another filler choice: groups of four hexagons:
This allows the Grandmother’s Flower garden units to be arranged in rows and columns directly above one another.
Here is the whole quilt top:
This is one of the quilts that I feature in my online Heritage Quilt Club, which meets every two weeks via Zoom. In each session I discuss in detail a quilt from my Collection, looking at the designs of the patchwork and quilting, the way the fabrics were printed/dyed, and the history of the maker or previous owner if known.
Some of the quilts from the sessions are also available as video links.
Have a look at the Antique Quilt Study section of my online Shop if you are interested.
So, if you have a pile of hexagons already stitched into double rosettes, can I encourage you to sort them by value, choose one of the arrangements which works, and enjoy completing a project?