Naming Quilt Blocks

I am fascinated by the wealth of traditional quilt blocks, but even more so by the many names they go by and their variations. And I can’t help wondering how much variation it takes for a block to become a different block. Browsing Barbara Brackman’s Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns, I’d posit that when shapes change–even one in a 9-patch block–a block gets a new number.  When shapes remain the same but fabrics change, it gets the same number with a letter suffix.  I’ll have to look more closely to see if that holds true.

3 quilt blocks

It’s block lotto time and January is blue-and-yellow month. The two to the right are among my stock blocks for lotto. I’m used to calling the block “Churn Dash” or “Monkey Wrench”; however, I was surprised to see it has been published under 19 different names (and four fabric variations). *

I had two reasons for exploring other block options. 1. I wanted to try something new. 2. I had been given the yellow/blue print fabric scraps by a friend who was house cleaning. I had decided I’d use all of it. Most was in 2 1/2-inch strips, but some pieces were large enough to get 4 1/2-inch squares and 5-inch squares. So I decided to cut as many as possible and add blue and yellow as necessary.

After using two 4 1/2-inch squares in the Churn Dash blocks I still had four. The block to the left was perfect for them. It has only one name, published under Nancy Cabot’s name in 1933 as Double Hour Glass. (# 1687a. There are three other fabric variations.)

Jacob's ladder

I had 20 small squares and two 5-inch squares left to play with. These two blocks use the same shaped pieces, I think of it as “Jacob’s Ladder.” Brackman shows five fabric variations, two worked for me. The block to the right has seven names.** I kept the two color arrangement but switched the print and plain–I don’t think that counts as another block because elsewhere Brackman simply notes in parentheses that fabrics were switched.

“Jacob’s Ladder” is among the seven names for the block to the left as well.***

Of course I could have cut the shapes and moved them around instead of finding block patterns first. But even if I had, if I’d used regular shapes, I’d have figured that someone else had already done it, and looked for a name.  Both design approaches are fun. Starting with the book can be faster unless you get caught up in browsing all 4000+ block designs.

The encyclopedia is no longer in print, but the information is available electronically as Blockbase from EQ.

This block has a different history.

Black Bird block

“When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing . . .”

A long time ago an invitation was put forth to make blocks representing nursery rhymes. A limited number would be made into a quilt. I had just seen how to make a bird from drunkard’s path blocks, and thought of “Sing a Song of Sixpence.” I sent it in. Obviously it wasn’t chosen. We must have sent SASE for the return of unused blocks–before electronic submission days. I was surprised to find it in a box of very old scraps. It was blue and yellow, so it went along with the others.

Linking up with LAFF and Show off Saturday. Here’s hoping that using one scrap fabric and a block found at the bottom of a box of scraps is scrappy enough for Oh Scrap!

*For the hardy souls who are still reading and who want to know all 19: Double Monkey Wrench, Old Mill Design, Hen and Chickens, Double  T, Shoo Fly, Sherman’s March, Love Knot, Hole in the Barn Door, Puss in the Corner, Lincoln’s Platform, Indian Hammer, Quail’s Nest, Broken Plate, Joan’s Doll Quilt, Fisherman’s Reel, Picture Frame, and Ludlow’s Favorite.#1646a

**The other six names: The Railroad, Golden Stairs, Road to California, Off to San Francisco, Going to Chicago, Susie’s Fancy. #1695a

***And the other six: Stepping Stones, The Tail of Benjamin’s Kite, Trail of the Covered Wagon, Wagon Tracks, Underground Railroad, Double Hour Glass. #1695b

ETA Brackman classification numbers


Filed under quilting

10 responses to “Naming Quilt Blocks

  1. Cher

    Glad you gave the names, as Jacob’s Ladder immediately came to mind for your second block. Love playing with 2 color blocks. I think your “blackbird” block is quite unique! Great blocks and so glad you share Barbra Brackman’s information. I do own her book too.

  2. Love your blocks! I once read that ‘yellow’ shouldn’t be included in quilts. After that I kept seeing yellow popping up in the quilts I was seeing. I love your yellow and thing it will make a bright & cheery. Thanks for all the names! It is fascinating to see the same block with a number of names.

    • I think the advice to “use carefully” easily morphs into “don’t use.” I remember a time also when white was not to be used because it drew all the attention to itself. If we use either color judiciously, capitalizing on its tendency to stand out, we can make them work.

  3. Isn’t it fun to see that though the names may cross in one spot, they really don’t cross again very often? For example, two different versions of Jacob’s Ladder, don’t have other names in common. I’m always fascinated by all this. I collected the original Key to a Thousand Quilt Patterns in their little plastic notebooks and still have them in storage. I can get lost for hours, you’re right! All beautiful blocks!

  4. martidiy

    That is really interesting. I didn’t know there were numbers assigned to quilt blocks as well as names. I’ve seen a Puss in the corner block that looked different too. I like your flying bird and surprised it wasn’t chosen. It’s very clever.

    • Thanks! I’ve seen several Hen and Chicks as well. I looked in the index and there are 9 entries for Puss in the Corner (I didn’t view each entry–another day.) Because I used two that were both called “Jacob’s Ladder” I looked at the other three–they were not. As to the numbers, Brackman said she assigned them to help her keep order as she collected names, then others writing about quilts began to use them. Since the names are so variable, it is one way to be sure you are talking about the same block design.

      On Fri, Jan 23, 2015 at 9:00 PM, knitNkwilt wrote:


      • dawn at firstlightdesigns

        Fascinating!! I love to hear about block names and appreciate the link to Blockbase in EQ. I think your block is very clever!

  5. Your encyclopedia seems like it would be a fascinating book to browse through! I have always liked blue and yellow together myself.

  6. Finding orphan blocks a home in a quilt you are making is always a bonus! I like your yellow and blue combination. Thanks for sharing on Oh Scrap!

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