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Collecting Mania: Favorite Quilt Patterns

Updated on March 20, 2011

There are literally thousands of patchwork designs and variations in existence, and although this seemingly endless variety is precisely what attracts many collectors to quilts, there are certain designs that people seem to gravitate toward.

The Shakers - widely recognized as master furniture makers, gardeners, and architects - also quilted. Quilted bedcovers officially became "art" in 1971, when the groundbreaking exhibition "Abstract Design in American Quilts" opened at New York City's Whitney Museum of American Art. New York Times critic Hilton Kramer wrote at the time: "...the anonymous quilt-makers of the American provinces created a remarkable succession of visual masterpieces that anticipated many of the forms that were later prized for their originality and courage."

Collectors love quilts with strong graphics, so look for the following:

  • Tumbling Blocks: Made up of hundreds of tiny fabric diamonds pieced to create a three-dimensional effect, with examples from the early 19th century through the early decades of the 20th century. Crib quilts and Amish examples are especially popular with collectors.
  • Log Cabin: Aptly named for the narrow strips, or "logs," of fabric pieced to form individual blocks. The intricacy and age of fine examples (most date to the last quarter of the 19th century) have made this pattern quite expensive. Quilts with wider logs are generally more affordable than those with narrow ones.
  • Stars: Stars first appeared on quilts early in the 19th century. Variations range from single, large stars like the Star of Bethlehem pattern, to series of smaller stars such as Evening Star. The smaller the stars, the greater the interest among collectors.

The sight of a Baltimore Album quilt - a design in which each appliquéd block is more fanciful than the next - has stopped many a collector in their tracks. Impressive price tags often come with the package; $10,000 or more is not unheard of, owing to the quilts' age (circa 1840 to 1860) and the intricacy of their designs. More modest favorites include:

  • Pictorial Quilts: Most often appliquéd, these quilts feature one motif repeated in rows. Popular subjects include dogs, cats, birds, baskets, boots, coffee cups, Sunbonnet Sue, and especially schoolhouses. Although some examples date to the 19th century, kit quilts from the 1920's through the 1940's are most common in today's market.
  • Crazy Quilts: Late-19th-century creations characterized by mismatched bits of jewel-toned silks, satins, and velvets embellished with embroidery, ribbons, and paint. Every time you look at a crazy quilt, you see something you hadn't noticed before.
  • Double Wedding Rings and Grandmother's Flower Gardens: Nostalgia fuels the market for these sentimental favorites, Shelly notes. Made up of small bits of fabric pieced together to create an overall effect of interlocking rings or hexagonal flower beds, these are most often associated with the pastel palette of Depression-era quilts. The patterns were so popular with quilters in the 1930's and 1940's that many examples survive from which collectors may choose.
  • Patriotic Quilts: Created during times of national celebration, presidential elections, or strife. American flags, eagles, and portraits of statesmen are common motifs on these quilts, and red, white, and blue color schemes abound.

Collectors need to be careful with schoolhouse quilts. The immense popularity of vintage red-and-white and blue-and-white examples and their rarity on the market have spawned reproductions in recent years. Loose stitches and coarse fabric may hint at a newly made piece, she points out. Play it safe and buy from someone well schooled in vintage textiles.


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