Patchwork Quilts

Patchwork Quilt A patchwork quilt, such as that shown to the left, is an item of bedding made of three basic elements. The quilt top, the middle layer of wadding or batting and the quilt back. These three elements are then quilted or stitched together so that the inner layer stays in place. Over time these basic elements have acquired more decorative aspects. The quilt top is the most decorative and is made up of different pieces or patches of fabric that form intricate patterns. The quilt stitching meanwhile has also become less functional and enhances and emphasises patterns on the fabric.

Watercolour Railfence by Liz Sewell.

Below is a patchwork quilt illustrating the main constituent parts

parts of a patchwork quilt



Patchwork is the concept of joining pieces or scraps of different coloured fabrics together to form a decorative or artistic larger piece of cloth. The result is usually visually greater in impact than the sum of the smaller patchwork pieces, or than if a single piece of cloth had been used. The patchwork pieces are often joined together to form a patchwork block, that is usually a square geometric unit. Multiple patchwork blocks are then joined together to form a larger finished piece, or if combined with a wadding or batting, a patchwork quilt. The beauty of the system is that the patchwork blocks can be arranged in multiple ways. In the examples below, Marti Michell has made very different looking patchwork quilts all by using a variation on what is called the Scrappy Sedona Star Block. By combining different block variations with different fabrics then there are almost endless possibilities.

Patchwork quilt with blocks

Patchwork quilt different styles

Patchwork blocks

English Patchwork

The style of patchwork that I was used to seeing my mother make is called English patchwork, or sometimes Mosaic Patchwork or Paper Patchwork. In this technique templates of paper or card are used as formers around which fabric is sewn. This particularly works with shapes such as hexagons and triangles, and I assumed that all patchwork was based on the Hexagon. The patches are sewn together and once it is secure on all sides the paper or card former can be removed. The problem with this method is that although the results are often accurate it is very time consuming. Thus you may have accurate patchwork pieces but enthusiasm often waned and the patchwork quilt often ended up unfinished. Modern methods of patchwork concentrate on making the patchwork blocks as quickly as possible so that quilts can be finished off and enjoyed.

Patchwork objects

The average woman on the streets must common preconception of what constitutes patchwork is probably that of a bed quilt from the Pioneer Days of America such as Little House on the Prairie. A patchwork quilts main purpose is to keep you warm. The trapped air in the wadding or batting layer, providing the warmth, with the quilting keeping the wadding in place. In practice not all were finished off and you may just have the patchwork top. These are therefore not for warmth but may function as a decorative item or one to keep the bed clean. The same may be true of related items such as pillows or shams.

The two other main areas in which patchwork objects may appear, are as linen for the table or as items of clothing. Articles of female clothing such as bonnets, aprons and petticoats where all created with decorative patchwork themes, and modern items might include patchwork bags or waistcoats. Patchwork has interesting social connotations and constructs that change over time. For example a patchwork bonnet might indicate that someone was not wealthy and could not afford a new bonnet, instead they had to make one from remnants. At another period of time it might be indicative that they have social status since the fabrics might be custom bought and it actually indicates someone with time on their hands.

mini patchwork quilt

A third major category that has grown up more recently is patchwork as art. The small decorative patchwork piece to the right is an example of this. It is made from small scraps of fabric like traditional patchwork but does not use a block pattern, rather it recreates a picture. In this example this is facilitated by using a brown "stained glass" effect to help fool the eye into seeing a finished object. Here the patchwork is complimented by a decorative hanger to bring out the work.
A Winding Ways design by Marti Michell which makes use of repeating curves and through the use of different values of light and dark creates secondary patterns within the quilt.

Winding Ways by Marti Michell

Winding Ways Patchwork Quilt

Patchwork blocks

A traditional patchwork quilt is commonly made up of blocks. The block itself is made up of a number of squares or patches and is often termed a four, nine or sixteen patch block etc. depending upon the number of patches. Below is a list of just some of the many block designs that exist.

Log Cabin


Roman Square

Wheel of Fortune

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

Ohio Star

Puzzle Boxes

Wedding Ring

Fox and Geese

Churn Dash



Sampler Patchwork Quilt A Sampler Quilt is collection or medley of different patterns on one quilt. In this case the different blocks function as a way of learning different techniques and construction methods.

To the left is a example of a Sampler Quilt. You can click on the quilt for a larger image.

Folk Art Sampler Applique Quilt. Designed by Hiver Pruden and quilted by Beryl Cadman of Custom Quilting. Photography by Neil Porter.



Patchwork Quilts as Art

Over time the patchwork quilt has broken out of its main role as an item of bedding and the technique is now found on an array of objects. Jackets, purses, cushions and bags have all had the patchwork treatment. In its ultimate expression the patchwork quilt has become a piece of art and the exhibits at major quilt shows such as Malvern or the Festival of Quilts at the NEC bring this art-form to an enraptured audience.

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