The Triangle – A Patchwork Principal


The triangle is one of the most ubiquitous forms in patchwork.  We need only look at what many consider to be The Quilters’ Guild’s most prized Museum Collection piece, The 1718 Silk Patchwork Coverlet, to see that this basic shape has been a staple since the earliest origins of patchwork.  It is alleged that abolitionists used triangles in quilts as part of a secret code to help slaves find their way to freedom during the years of the American Civil War.  Throughout quilting history, triangles have appeared as both the stars of the show, as well as the supporting players in more complex patchwork pieces.  In the collection’s ‘Early Nineteenth-century Crib Coverlet’, made sometime between 1780 – 1820, triangles have been used to piece squares on point, showcasing the shape’s versatility and usefulness.


As novice quilters, after progressing from the basic squares of Four-Patch and Nine-Patch, we are often taught the fundamentals of the Half Square Triangle; a building block that allows for progression to both more complex blocks, such as the Ohio Star and Monkey Wrench, as well as the opportunity for creative quilt design, thanks to the numerous variations the block can be laid out in.


For those of us who like precision and the application of mathematics in our patchwork, you can see why the triangle would be an appealing choice.  Equilateral triangles afford pleasing, repetitive designs, made all-the-more-easily by the introduction of specialist rulers.  The exactness of their angles allows for quick cutting and swift piecing.  The dedicated quarter inch foot and dual feed of my Bernina 570 would help with the necessary accurate piecing if I chose to make such a quilt.  Bold colour choices are combined with exciting fabrics to create truly stunning pieces that speak to the exact and accurate mindset of many quilters.  Alongside such precision comes a more organic, liberated approach to triangles; one favoured by many quilters, myself included.


I first approached triangles in a very traditional way.  I learnt how to produce several Half Square Triangles at once, speeding up the sewing process and yielding quick finishes.  I now find myself exploring triangles extensively in my practice, yet their construction has moved on to a much more improvised method.  I use an eclectic mix of scalene triangles, those whose angles are all different, to create dynamic and impactful patchwork.  I piece using no specific measurements, preferring to cut the triangles ad hoc and sew them into different sized background pieces.  An exact quarter-inch seam becomes less important.  I refer to these pieces as “triangle units”, rather than blocks, as their final shape and size has yet to be determined.  There is inevitably some trimming and reshaping of the piece before the unit finds its place in the finished patchwork.  Working in this way allows for spontaneity and an appreciation of the process, rather than focusing wholly on the end result.


Made in an improvised way, a triangle quilt takes on a uniqueness impossible to replicate.  A conversation can stem from the many iterations of the pieced units. My most recent quilt was entered into this year’s The Festival of Quilts; a riotous collision of hundreds and hundreds of triangles.  It was lovely to hear from so many what it was that the triangles suggested to them. “Hats” said one viewer, “roofs and hilltop villages” said another.  Perhaps the most fun, “small pairs of gnome pants” created by the triangle’s position in the background.  As the festive season approaches, perhaps the most apt is a Christmas tree.  Whatever way you interpret a triangle, the shape makes for both simple and striking quilts and it seems that as quilters, we’ve yet to reach the peak of this firm favourite.

Nicholas Ball

Bernina’s modern quilting expert


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