The Charming One-Patch
By Janet Jo Smith
Charm, Beggar, Odd Feller, or Friendship--these are some of the names given to this unique category of quilts. Most quilts derive their name from the design of a block, or from the technique used in construction. But the Charm Quilt is defined by its one-patch construction, every piece being cut from a different fabric.
There is a long history behind Charm Quilts, and several quilt historians have studied and written about them. Cuesta Benberry, noted quilt researcher and historian, is credited as one of the first contemporary writers to explore the origins of the style. Her first article on the subject appeared in QNM issue 120 in 1980. She notes, "A Charm Quilt was a very personal type of quilt-more a curiosity than a beauty; more an album of fabrics of the time than a clearly defined patterned quilt top." Jinny Beyer in her book The Scrap Look (EPM Publications, Inc. 1985) reflects that a Charm Quilt is "a style of quilt so prevalent, yet perhaps so ordinary-looking to the casual observer that it was easy to pass over as just another scrap quilt."
Pat L. Nickols first became interested in Charm Quilts in 1977, and published information about them in Uncoverings 1996 (American Quilt Study Group). The earliest example she was able to locate dated to the 1870s. It is generally accepted that the idea of making Charm Quilts grew out of the Victorian fad of charm strings-one-of-a-kind button collections that were strung together on string, sometimes also called friendship strings. One myth behind these collections was that if a young woman could collect 999 different buttons, the 1000th would be brought to her by her one true love.
This romantic notion seemed to appeal to quilters of the era since they adapted the fad to collecting fabrics, and stitching them into quilts, each piece from a different fabric. The name given to this type of quilt in the late 1800s varied by geographic region. Some were called Beggar's Quilts because the maker had to beg scraps from friends and relatives. Other names were Memory or Friendship because the collection of fabrics represented friends and family and the memories attached to them. And still another name was No-Two-Alike, chosen for obvious reasons.
An intriguing variation on the every-patch-different rule is found in a few quilts that have one fabric appearing twice in the quilt. Personal records reveal stories of young children, sick in bed, who entertained themselves hunting for that one repeated fabric. Were these quilts made by mothers who anticipated the fun of the game? It is quite possible since more than one example is reported in the historical literature.
The appeal of Charm Quilts faded with the end of the nineteenth century, but it was revived in the 1920s and '30s. This time the focus was less on romance and more on the nostalgia. No longer were young women making these quilts, but instead it was the now-mature granddaughters of those who had made them before who wanted to revive the style. However, these women seemed to want to "organize" or "clean up" the design by alternating the prints with muslin patches, or by separating the patches with sashing. The scrappy, disorganized look of the Victorian age was replaced by the order of the early twentieth century.
The quilt historians report that most of the Charm Quilts of this period contain fabrics that were all produced in the same decade, indicating that the maker was able to collect her fabrics and make the quilt in a relatively short time. The resurgence of interest was also fueled by the publication of one-patch quilt patterns and the first material about Charm Quilts published in this era. One example is the Kansas City Star pattern for an Ax or Spool titled The Friendship Quilt printed on November 15, 1930.
These early twentieth-century quilters were no doubt aided in obtaining so many different fabrics by commercially-offered packets of off-cut scraps from manufactured clothing and charm squares. Unlike their grandmothers who had to beg scraps, these quilters had other sources. In the May 1933 issue of Needlecraft magazine, an advertisement offered "six pounds of attractive patterns of the finest quality percale, tub fast colors $1.00 pay postman, plus postage." The following May, in the same publication, the Warren Textile Company of Boston, Massachusetts, published the following: "100 quilt pieces, 6" squares only, each piece different, best quality, (80 sq.) guaranteed fast color $1.00." Often referred to as dictionaries of fabric, Charm Quilts provide a source for study of the wide variety of fabrics produced during any era.
A surprisingly large number of shapes can be used to make a one-patch quilt. The shape must tessellate-that is, fit patch-to-patch without spaces between. This, of course, includes squares, right triangles, equilateral and isosceles triangles, diamonds, hexagons, and octagons; these are the most commonly used. But other shapes have developed as well, including the Ax (or Spool), the House, Tumbler, and Kite.
As the popularity of quilting declined in the 1950s and '60s, so did the incidence of Charm Quilts. It was the 1980 article in QNM by Cuesta Benberry that is credited with renewing interest in the style. The thrust of her article was to review a quilt style from the past, but its effect was to begin yet another wave of Charm Quilt making. More than one quilter looked again at the scrap quilts in her collection to discover that they were, in fact, Charm Quilts. Articles, photographs, and patterns featuring Charm Quilts began to appear in other publications, and in 1988 another article by Cuesta appeared in issues 198 and 199 of QNM.
Today's quilters have an enormous selection of fabrics available to them, and Charm Quilts are being taken to a new level "marked by bold and imaginative experimentation," according to Cuesta. No longer motivated by the search for a suitor, contemporary quilters enjoy the fun of collecting the fabrics and the opportunity to experiment and create. The age-old custom of trading fabrics with friends continues, with quilting bees, guilds, and on-line groups playing a role in some of the exchanges. Quilt stores and catalogs offer charm packets for sale, much as the magazines of the early twentieth century did. And, QNM has for years offered a forum for charm fabric exchanges in the Quilter's Exchange column.
The focus of the latest fashion for Charm Quilts is fun--the fun of collecting fabric, the fun of making connections with other quilters, and the fun of creating a quilt that is completely unique to its maker.
Click here for traditional one-patch templates. Some of these designs require set-in seams lending them best to hand piecing. For those who want the challenge of creating an original design, see Jinny Beyer's book Designing Tessellations, The Secrets of Interlocking Patterns (Contemporary Books, 1999).
Click here to download the PDF file.