Saturday, September 30, 2017

The stuff of legends, part 9: the evolving myth of the "humility block"

Flawed theory: the "humility block" is a romanticized myth gone viral.
Many of today's quiltmakers believe incorporating intentional mistakes in a quilt is paying tribute to an age-old, Amish tradition. The so-called "humility blocks" were intended to express the belief that only God was perfect. Charming story, but did they really do that? A romanticized myth gone viral, the humility block is the stuff of legends.

Was it an honest mistake?

A turn-of-the-century blue and white quilt with a repeat appliqué pitcher and bowl design has an obvious mistake. The appliqué is backwards in one block. Was it an honest mistake? Was it noticed too late and left in? It would be difficult to say because we don't even know who made the quilt. When you don't know the identity of the maker, making statements about intent is problematic.

This quilt appeared in "Why Quilts Matter: History, Art & Politics"

"Certainly the myth of putting the error in the quilt to express humility has not been proven,"said Lee Kogan, Curator Emerita of the American Folk Art Museum in an interview for "Why Quilts Matter: History, Art & Politics." "I think when you're making a quilt that has very complex patterning, it's likely that a slight deviation will take place here and there,"

"I have heard a lot of these stories," added Elizabeth Warren, Trustee and Guest Curator of the American Folk Art Museum. "I spent a lot of time debunking the myths, that for some reason keep reappearing and I don't know why." She thought possibly it had "something to do with people's view of quilts as something homey."

Amish crib quilt, c. 1900

Mistakes happen. You don't have to plan them.

The humility block is widely attributed to the Amish, but that's not what Amish people say. "I once asked an Amish quilter about the humility block thing citing the phrase '...since only God is perfect,'" said quiltmaker, teacher and author Pepper Cory in a reply to a post on Facebook. "She looked sideways at me and said, 'Yes, I heard about it. From an English (non-Amish) quilter. But I was never told that.' End of story."

"Similar to what I was told when I asked Amish ladies," said Pennsylvania quiltmaker and historian Barbara Garrett. "The most common comment: 'I read in a magazine that you all think that about us. That was the first I heard the idea." The Amish quiltmakers readily admitted mistakes happened, and you didn't have to plan them. 

"As a long time quilt maker I can attest to the fact that one does not have to try to make an error," said artist Joe Cunningham.

mistakes happen
If the quiltmakers of yesterday did not include humility blocks in their quilts, why would quiltmakers do it today? The story so charming, people want to believe it. So, they use it as a design element in their work. It may not make the myth more real, but it serves its own purpose. It canonizes the legend. Perhaps the best way to express humility is to do as the Amish actually do. Embrace unintended mistakes rather than making something more out of them.


  1. Thank you, Bill, for researching and reporting on this!! I love the "mistakes" in quilts, and I've wondered about the notion of "humility" blocks. So true, mistakes happen. I think a more likely theory, and one that I learned from my grandmother, is that the quilter wouldn't toss out good fabric and time spent. They'd use go ahead and use it in the quilt, considering it either hidden, funny or "good enough." The quilts I like best are those that were made by women who didn't have money, fabric or time to waste. I suspect it was more about "waste not, want not," a far more prevalent thought of the day.

  2. The concept of the "humility" block always struck me as very prideful rather than humble. It seemed to be saying that the maker could have done the pattern perfectly if they wanted to, but deliberately didn't.

    I've really enjoyed your "myth" series.

  3. A deliberate humility block is just saying, "I could have made a perfect quilt if I wanted to." The opposite of humility!

  4. I think it’s most likely that a block becomes a humility block after it is done and sewn into the quilt, because who would want to rip all that out? I always thought the notion of a deliberate humility Block was not very likely. Makes a good story, as usual. mistakes are kind of fun to find later.