Historically, much of what we think of as “traditional patchwork” has its origins in the USA. Their “block” style is not really found in British patchwork quilts apart from a few designs such as the basket, which became popular in late Victorian times. This example comes from Cumbria.
It was only with the American inspired revival in the 1970s that blocks and Sampler Quilts became popular in the UK. My recent series “Skilful Skyful” concentrates on “half-square triangles” in part 1 and “quarter-square triangles” in part 2, so (although these terms were not used here until more recently), I’m going to concentrate on triangles in this blogpost, showing you examples from my collection of antique British quilts which use these units in a different way. If you would like to find out more about any of these quilts, click on the links.
So what does traditional British patchwork look like? It tended to be Mosaic (an allover design made of small geometric shapes, usually pieced over papers) or Frame quilts (similar to Medallion quilts), where a succession of pieced borders surround a central block.
Dividing a square along the diagonal either once or twice is such an easy way to make a set of triangles, so this shape is often found. It wasn’t as difficult to draft as a hexagon, for example.
Quarter-square triangle units are often found at the centre of a frame quilt.
This example came from a farm sale near Penrith in Cumbria – can you see the quarter square triangle unit in the middle?
Here is another one in the middle of a Welsh frame quilt
Welsh quilts from the second half of the nineteenth century can have pieces of a very large size, similar to Amish quilts. Although the most striking examples are made from red and black wool flannel,this lavender and buff cotton example still has a dramatic impact. You can’t miss this enormous quarter square triangle unit!
The next picture shows the centre of one of the oldest quilts in my collection, made between 1780 and 1800. You can see that the centre panel contains four quarter-square triangle units, which would probably have been referred to then as Cotton Reels. This is surrounded by half-square triangle units.
You can see more photos of the whole quilt, the Dorset Frame Coverlet on my own website, along with close-ups and descriptions of some of the expensively produced fabrics.
This one, made by Harriet Yeatman in the late nineteenth century is also made from a wide variety of fabrics, but has a completely different colour palette, due to the wider range of dyes and printing techniques available by then. You can more photos on my website. The coverlet is entirely made from quarter square triangle units. Note how she has placed solid red triangles around the border to frame it.
Another hundred years later, this one is made using just half-square triangle units – in an even wider range of fabrics, including some synthetics, in a brighter colour palette.
Have you thought about making a quilt like this? You wouldn’t need a pattern; just use a selection of fabrics from your stash. If you are not sure how to choose colours which will work together, have a look at the second half of this post in the Hints & Tips section, which discusses Scrap Quilts.
If you like looking at antique quilts, the Quilters Guild collection is well worth a browse.