Friday, August 7, 2009

Homestead Warmth: Log Cabin Quilts

A log cabin quilt on display at the Education Center

Log cabins were often the first homes on the prairie for early homesteaders. Along with these log cabins came a quilt pattern by the same name. The design— representing the hand-hewn log cabin—was believed to convey conceptually the spirit and perseverance of American pioneers.

We Americans have long considered this pattern the quintessential American design,” said author and quilt teacher Jane Hall. “The heyday of the log cabin in this country was in the third and fourth quarters of the nineteenth century, corresponding to the widespread trek westward after the Civil War, so the ‘little-house-on-the-Prairie’ figure fits nicely,” said Hall.

It is not known when the Log Cabin quilt pattern first appeared in America but Log Cabin quilts were receiving commendations as early as 1863 at the Ohio State Fair. “Other fairs in the 1870s and 80s added premiums specifically for Log Cabin quilts, indicating their popularity was increasing,” according to the International Quilt Study Center website.

The design is built around a small square which was often red or yellow, a practice thought to reflect the hearth or the light within the log cabin. The traditional design continues by sewing strips in sequence around the sides of the square varying between light and dark material.

This quilt is often tied as opposed to being quilted. “These foundations were often waste fabrics of different weights, perhaps recycled, and in the days before sewing machines were widely available, would be almost impossible to quilt through by hand,” said Hall.

Log Cabin designs were also used to raise money during the Civil War. Historians have discovered that the design was used for quilts that were raffled off. “It is said President Abraham Lincoln who grew up in a log cabin might have regarded the pattern as a symbol of loyalty, as head of the Union,” according to the Quilt Ethnic website.

The pattern is a universal design construct that is found in ancient Roman tile work, Egyptian animal mummy wrappings, and seventeenth-century perfume bags. The British Quilt Heritage project found extant Log Cabin quilts made as early as the second quarter of the nineteenth century. In Great Britain, a square perfume bag (sachet) worked in lattice silks in the pattern is shown in a 1926 book, according to Hall.

But the design itself was found much earlier. “In the early part of the nineteenth century, when the tombs in Egypt were opened, the British found thousands of small animal mummies, put there as funerary objects of respect for the departed royalty. Some of these are housed in the British Museum and a person can easily see the Log Cabin patterning in the way the strips of linen are wound around the cat or ibex. Some of the mummies are even colored, with some sort of dye, in light and dark areas on the diagonals, exactly like the contemporary Log Cabin blocks,” said Hall.

Although the design has been around for centuries it has only been executed in fabric for less than 200 years. And for most of those years it has been a reminder of the pioneer family and their first home on the prairie…a log cabin.

Primary Pattern: Log Cabin; Alternate Pattern: Barn Raising setting. Date: Circa 1880-1900. International Quilt Study Center and Museum, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 1997.007.0005

Design dynamics log cabin quilts from the Jonathan Holstein collection. (2009). International Quilt Study Center []. Retrieved June 25, 2009, from:

Hall, J. (2004). Log cabin quilts-Inspirations from the past. Retrieved June 25, 2009 from

Log cabin quilt. (1999-2008). Quilt Ethnic. Retrieved June 25, 2009 from:

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