Stitching Times serves up stories, examples and tutorials about needlework related crafts, especially quilting and crochet. Almost all of the projects shown have been designed by Kay Stephenson

Monday, February 11, 2013

Log Cabins and the Quilts of Gees Bend

Before I was doing much quilting at all a friend and I went to see the “Quilts of Gees Bend” exhibit at the High Museum here in Atlanta. That was in 2005 I think. I was making a crazy quilt inspired by one my Mom had from her mother – the first and, I thought, the last quilt I would ever make.
Annie Mae Young, b. 1928
Work-clothes quilt with center 
medallion  of corduroy strips
ca. 1976 Denim, corduroy, 
synthetic blend 108 x 77 inches 
That exhibit touched me deeply. I was inspired by the stories of these creative women and the simple beauty they brought to the necessities and realities of life: a warm blanket to keep the children warm, the need to use what came to hand, and the loss of a loved one remembered in the quilt made of his old work clothes. It made me want to make more quilts and ones of my own design.

I believe that exhibit was the first place I learned of the “log cabin” design, so I can perhaps be forgiven if it took me awhile to realize that most log cabin quilts aren't wonky.

Through magazines and books I taught myself the basics and before long I was hooked. Since then I've made many quilts, some modern, some traditional and even a few wonky log cabin throws.
I have tended toward the modern, but recently I've become more curious about traditional quilt designs and blocks. I suspect the stars in this early quilt I designed have a name. Surely I didn't invent something totally new. That is pretty hard to do when working with the basic shapes (squares, rectangles and triangles).

Today I've been learning more about just a few of the traditional “sets” used with the log cabin block. A set is the way that the blocks are laid out to make different designs. I've also been reading a bit about the history of log cabins.
Many histories suggest that the log cabin was an American design inspired by the western movement onto the prairie. The traditionally red center block represented the hearth, and the light values on one side represented the sunny side of the log cabin, while the darker values represented the shady side. It certainly sounds right.

However, it seems that the design has been around at least since the time of the pharaohs.  When the tombs in Egypt were opened by British explorers, they found mummified animals (cats, etc.) that had been wrapped in fabric with the distinctive alternating light and dark strips – some even dyed different colors. It is certainly possible that this design sprang up independently in multiple locations and times. Who is to say.

More fascinating to me are all of the different designs you can make with that simple block shown above.

The Straight Set

The Barn Raising

Straight Furrows

Streak of Lightening or Zig Zag




And then there are the variations on the basic log cabin block. This block is called Pineapple, and when laid out on the diagonal, it makes a dramatic pattern

Another variation is called Court House Steps.

I love learning about all of these traditional designs, and I like the idea of working some of that tradition into modern quilts – as long as I don’t have to be bound by rules. Seriously , that center square doesn't have to be red. It doesn't even have to be square. In fact, It’s unlikely that most would look at my wonky quilts and see the log cabin in them.

Lillie Mae Pettway, 1927-1990
"Housetop"--twelve-block "Half-Logcabin" variation
ca. 1965, cotton, wool corduroy, 77 x 65 inches. 
But I know it’s there. And I know that Lillie Mae Pettway’s Housetop quilt (a twelve block Half-log Cabin variation) was the quilt that started me on this path. 

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