My favorite part of making a quilt is piecing the very first block. The process can be tedious and repetitive at times, but after making many hours worth of duplicate blocks, it’s time to arrange them, connect them, and then actually quilt the top and the back together.
As an ongoing side project, I’ve decided to capture the fun of that first block by making a sampler quilt. So I’ve been researching historical blocks, making one or two a week from my scraps as I have time, and eventually I’ll have a sampler quilt. I have no timeline at all, since life is a lot busier now that I’m employed.
As I go, I’ll share the blocks I’m making as well as some of the history I’ve researched. That has been the most fun for me–doing a bit of extra reading online and in books, looking for the history of each block. The librarian in me (whether officially employed as such or not) can’t help it! On that note — If you’re ever looking to get the general gist of a subject, with some interesting facts included, look for a children’s book! The sentences will be straightforward, the illustrations colorful, and it won’t be dry or boring!
Be sure to check out my sources at the bottom of each post to do some additional reading of your own!
The first block I completed was the Bow Tie block.
To create one 12-inch block, you will need:
- four 6-1/2″ x 6-1/2″ squares (two for the background and two for the bow tie)
- two 3″ x 3″ squares (for the bow tie)
- Draw a line from one corner to the opposite corner of the small square (on the back of the fabric).
- Place each small square on the corner of each background square, right sides together.
- Sew a seam directly on the marked line and trim the excess fabric to 1/4″ past the seam line. Repeat for the second square.
- Press seam allowances towards the large square.
- Arrange the two pieced units and two Bow Tie squares.
Sew the each row together in pairs first, and press. Then sew the two rows together for the completed block.
This block (also called Necktie or Hourglass) dates back to the days of early Americans settling in the West. Although some blocks were created and named to honor important events or people in history, many quilt blocks were also named for everyday parts of pioneer life. As my children’s book The Quilt-Block History of Pioneer Days states so eloquently, “They were a way for pioneer women to tell the story of the settling of the country in a very special art form.”
Later, the Bow Tie block was also part of the Underground Railroad. Although it’s controversial among historians, there are many stories of quilts being used as secret codes for stops on the Underground Railroad.
As the website Owen Sound’s Black History puts it, “Secret messages in the form of quilt patterns aided slaves escaping the bonds of captivity in the Southern states before and during the American Civil War. … The quilt patterns, used in a certain order, relayed messages to slaves preparing to escape. … Quilts slung over a fence or windowsill, seemingly to air, passed on the necessary information to knowing slaves. As quilts hung out to air was a common sight on a plantation, neither the plantation owner nor the overseer would notice anything suspicious. It was all part of a day’s work for the slaves. Characteristic of African culture is the communication of secrets through the use of common, everyday objects; the objects are seen so often they are no longer noticeable.”
Specifically, the Bow Tie block was “a symbol indicating it was necessary to travel in disguise or to change from the clothing of a slave to those of a person of higher status.”
I love the idea of sending messages through a medium so common that it’s invisible to most people. I feel like that is one of the greatest strengths of quilts. While quilting has always been “women’s work” in the past, it was always a way for women to create beauty and express their creativity in a time or place that would seem to dampen ambition in other ways. Finding beauty in the mundane.
Who knew such a humble block could have such an interesting history?
Block pattern: www.quilterscache.com “Easy Bow Tie Quilt Block”
The Quilt-Block History of Pioneer Days, with Projects Kids Can Make, written by Mary Cobb and illustrated by Jan Davey Ellis
Owen Sound’s Black History: http://www.osblackhistory.com/quiltcodes.php