Friday, February 3, 2017

Alternative Fact Friday: Quilt Pattern Names

Mountain Mist New York Beauty, c. 1930
Today's blog is for all the folks who didn't quite get it right. It is a tribute to casual research propped up by an agenda, artificial conclusions, the breeding ground of alternative facts. Let's talk about quilt pattern names!

"Quilt pattern names can never really be called correct." 
 -Barbara Brackman

Thank goodness for Barbara Brackman. In a recent Material Culture blog post she said, "Quilt pattern names can never really be called correct. They change over time. Generations forget them. Writers make them up." Brackman's "Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns" is a valuable resource when it comes to pattern ID. If you want a complete understanding of the book, listen to what she says about pattern names, and thoroughly read through the References in the back.

The book includes illustrated patterns with names and notes about the source publications. It is a compliation of published patterns, a very important thing to understand considering when the patterns were published. A scant few came from the very late 19th century, and the rest are from the 20th century.

There is very little documentation of pattern names before the 1890s, and not much evidence to suggest a tendency toward pattern naming before magazines appeared. The earliest American publication to feature quilt patterns did not name them at all.

Godey's Lady's Books, published from 1830 to 1878, included geometric pieced quilt patterns, but they were called "patchwork" and came with few details. There were no cute or clever commercial names for each design. It was simply patchwork.
1860s pieced quilt from Kentucky, and a serious question:

"If we do not know who made it,
how can we possibly know what the maker called it?"
This information presents some problems for folks who try to use Brackman's book to identify the pattern names of quilts made before the turn of the century. A few years ago, I was trolled by a small group of them on Facebook. If only they could've channeled their passion more productively, maybe they wouldn't have looked like such fools.

I published my book. The trolls went on to do nothing of substance, and I'm sure they're still furious about how things turned out. Publishers do not want to work with them, and there isn't much need to talk about their unvetted ideas in print or elsewhere. The quilts had way too much to say.

The name "New York Beauty" came from a 1930 Mountain Mist pattern. You can read more about it in my book. Many of the pre-1930 examples came from the South, and so did some of the folks who stretched the truth to offer a more "original" name.

Perfectly lovely stories about religious conviction and westward migration made the agenda clear. These folks wanted the quilt to reflect Southern ideals since the pattern appeared to originate in the South. Unfortunately, it was an artificial way to make a point, and the point failed.

When you are researching pattern name for a 19th century quilt, especially knowing nothing about the maker, do not be disappointed when you reach a dead end. It means you asked all the right questions. For the sake of people knowing what you're talking about, it's OK to use a modern or a widely accepted name in reference to the design. As I discovered in my own research, clarity matters much more than a few bruised egos.


  1. I remember those patterns in Mountain Mist batting. Better than baseball cards my brothers collected.
    I found Jenny Beyer's reference books useful for naming history and am enjoying your alternative facts series.

  2. It's pretty amazing what "experts" those trolls are on all kinds of subjects, and how much they like to tell people that they're wrong. On all kinds of subjects. Carry on Bill, the collection you assembled and your book are a treasure.

    1. Thank you, Marjorie. You get places by doing all the things you're doing, so keep up the great work.