Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Bird in the Coxcomb...

I was curious about the coxcomb block on the Album with Lyre quilt, so I looked it up on Wikipedia. Here's what the entry said:

Celosia is a small genus of edible and ornamental plants, similar in appearance to amaranths. They are sometimes called cockscombs or woolflowers. The name itself refers to the plant's brilliant appearance and striking flame-like flower heads, which resemble cockscombs, the anatomical part of a male foul. The name "cockscomb" may be restricted to those whose flower heads are crested by fasciation - a condition of plant growth in which the apical meristem, normally concentrated around a single point, producing approximately cylindrical tissue, becomes elongated perpendicularly to the direction of growth, producing flattened, ribbon-like, crested, or elaborately contorted tissue.

Red cockscomb flowers, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In the world of quilts, we commonly see the word spelled as "coxcomb", and the word also refers to the cap of a court jester (obsolete), a foolish, or conceited person or "dandy", and the fleshy red pate of a rooster. It is a recognizable motif in quilts because of the way it is depicted, and is often seen in the red and green quilts of the mid-19th century.

"A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." The block gave me a reason to explore the origins of this well-known proverb, and I learned it refers back to medieval falconry, where a bird in the hand (the falcon) was a valuable asset and certainly worth more than two in the bush (the prey). The earliest citation of the expression in print, in its currently used form, is found in John Ray's "A Hand-book of Proverbs" from 1670.

The block is from the fourth row of the Album with Lyre, far right, and actually faces sideways with the bird in the lower left corner of the block. I've rotated the image for easier viewing. This block is the only one with a bird, or any creature, and it also appears in this quilt's "sister" quilt made by Harriet Small, daughter of Mary Couchman Small. These two quilt makers obviously worked from shared patterns, even though they didn't always do them exactly the same way.

Whenever I look at pictures of the two quilts side-by-side, this block is one of the elements that really jumps out. A bird in the coxcomb may be worth two in the bush, but these two quilts, made by the same family, are priceless.

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