Saturday, October 9, 2010

evolution of a beauty

Two "New York Beauty" pattern quilts, circa 1850 (left), and 2010 (right).
Quilt makers of today recognize the New York Beauty pattern as a vibrant, paper-pieced block incorporating points and curved seams. Wildly explosive multicolored blocks overlap and intersect, forming circles and trails. The modern idea of a New York Beauty represents less than 15 years of the pattern's century-and-a-half history. So, how has this pattern evolved in 150 years?

In the mid-to-late 19th century, the New York Beauty was known by many
other names, including Rocky Mountain Road and Crown of Thorns.

In the earliest known examples from the mid 19th century, the block design was four spiked quarter circles, each wedged in the corners of a square or rectangle, surrounded by pieced sashing repeating the points from the quarter circles. Many of the early examples, such as this red, white, and green quilt from the mid 19th century, show a lack of symmetry in the overall block layout. The borders offer symmetry, but the quilt seems a little off balance with half blocks on two sides and full blocks on the other two sides. It was made for a bed, though, not for wall display.

Diamond sashing and inverted points, early variations
Suspension Bridge, streamlined variation for the 20th century
Not long after the pattern appeared, it started to evolve. Early variations in the last quarter of the 19th century included alternative solutions to piecing, such as inverted points and diamond sashing. Quilt makers wanted to make this type of quilt, but they seemed to be inventing easier ways to accomplish the piecing. At the same time, the quilting started to become less dense. 

In the early 20th century, variations were even more streamlined. Suspension Bridge was one of these variations. The pattern featured a more condensed space with touching circles, less negative space in the center, and a dramatically reduced number of points. 

Mountain Mist coined the name New York Beauty in 1930.
Another early 20th century variation was the pattern published by Mountain Mist in 1930, which gave us the name New York Beauty. Before 1930, the pattern was known by many names including Rocky Mountain Road and Crown of Thorns. The Mountain Mist pattern was set on point, with a reduced number of blocks, slightly blunted points, diamond star cornerstones, symmetry, and a simplified sense of organization. The pattern even included notes on what colors to use.

Even though the New York Beauty has gradually become a little easier to create, it is still not an easy quilt to make. Until the end of the 20th century, most of the variations included pattern streamlining and new color combinations. In the depression era, for example, the quilt appeared with softer colors including nile green, lavender, sky blue, and bubble gum pink. 

There were few other developments until the mid-to-late 1990's, when contemporary artists Karen Stone and Valori Wells introduced a dramatic rethinking of the traditional pattern. Blocks were turned inside-out, forming circles with various point sizes and contrasting fabrics. Paper piecing methods were introduced, ushering in a whole new era of New York Beauties.

The Wedding Garden by Jean Wells Keenan of Sisters, Oregon.

Ultimately, the New York Beauty block became a pictorial element, as seen in "The Wedding Garden" by Jean Wells Keenan. In this quilt, colors and point sizes are mixed and matched to create circular flower heads, representing the memory of Keenan's garden as it looked during her daughter's wedding. 

The New York Beauty quilts of today are worlds apart from the quilts made 150 years ago, but a few things have remained constant. The pattern represents the highest degree of difficulty among pieced quilt designs. It is rarely seen on the open market, but remains a favorite among collectors. Most of all, it is a dynamic, graphic pattern that continues to resonate with quilt makers.

In 2011, I will be showing a large group of New York Beauty quilts from my personal collection at the Benton County Historical Museum in Philomath, Oregon. The quilts will represent over 150 years of quilt history in one pattern, and will be on display as part of Quilt County, 2011, from August to October. 


  1. Thanks for the informative post. NYB was one of the first quilting classes I taught and remains a favorite!

  2. I'll be visiting the museum for sure!!