British Quilt Study Group member Janet Rae takes you on a journey through the history of the Log Cabin design.
In the early 1990s, when The Quilters’ Guild Quilt Documentation team was travelling around the country, we spent a day in The Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle. That day there was a large turnout with more than 100 people waiting in the queue at one time to have their quilts examined. Despite the pressure, Dinah Travis and I managed a conversation about a Log Cabin quilt brought in for examination. She was interested in the pattern’s different variations and I wondered aloud about its provenance and symbolism. Some years later that conversation inspired our collaboration on Making Connections: Around the World with Log Cabin published in 2004 (available to buy from QShop here)
As other members of the British Quilt Study Group will agree, quilt research is addictive but often frustrating. Just when you think you have found corroborative evidence to prove a fact you are left hanging without any apparent road forward. I certainly had this experience with Making Connections.
Dinah and I had very distinctive roles from the outset. I was to research the pattern and select historic quilts with different layouts and she was to use them as the basis for moving the pattern forward. With her artistic background and wide teaching experience she did this brilliantly through samples and diagrams, showing readers how they could develop new ideas through historic associations. Dinah was a very inspirational person and it was a great loss to the world of patchwork when she died in 2019.
Straight Furrow Log Cabin Coverlet made between 1875 and 1900. The Quilters’ Guild
Museum Collection. (Angela Brocklebank Bequest)
My input to our collaboration no doubt benefited from some post-retirement cruises taken with my husband and my wish to take not just a British or American viewpoint, but one that was more universal. I also became overly sensitive to the use of the pattern in other crafts including weaving, embroidery, wood parquetry and even, in a simple form, Peruvian pottery.
At the outset, we adopted the view that any block made with strips was a ‘member’ of the Log Cabin family. I wrestled with the name of the pattern itself which has changed over the years. Historically, American patchworkers seemed to christen blocks more readily than quilters in the UK. Sometimes, the names given to blocks had political associations. In America, the Log Cabin block is generally linked to the presidential campaign of Abraham Lincoln in 1864. However, it was also linked to Canada, with 19th century British publications referring to it as the Canadian ‘Loghouse’ or ‘Logwood’ pattern. The association with Canada continued well into the 1940s though by this time in a book by Mary Thomas (Mary Thomas’s Embroidery Book), it was called ‘Canadian Patchwork’. The pattern was the same but the technique was different: strips of cloth was folded in half lengthwise and applied in overlapping rows on a linen foundation.
While the name of the pattern can still cause confusion so too did its origins. Many geometric patterns used by today’s quilters have ancient origins, appearing as they do in all kinds of decorative motifs and crafts. And patterns cross over in usage. Log Cabin as we know it today appears as a woven pattern in the wrappings of Egyptian mummies especially between 30 BC to AD 395, the Roman period. It is not surprising therefore, that in 1897, one astute book editor even suggested it should be called the ‘Mummy’ pattern or ‘Egyptian Patchwork’ – this at a time when British museums were consolidating their collections of ancient Egyptian artefacts.
When it comes to symbolism, there are some interesting parallels between the mummy wrappings and today’s usage of the Log Cabin pattern. Light and dark fabrics and a red centre usually figure in the composition of the block. The Americans explain the red centre as the Log Cabin fire with the light and dark representing the shadows thrown by the fire. But light and dark shadings were also used in linen mummy wrappings. The dark colour is believed to have been achieved using the saff flower as a dye. It produced a dark pink – perhaps a reference to the sun as opposed to fire? One final tidbit – today’s weavers still have a log cabin pattern in their repertoire!
Dinah and I worked on our collaboration from her home in Kent and mine in Edinburgh. Once retired, I had the freedom to travel to libraries and museums to pursue my research. Some of it was very frustrating – I could never quite pinpoint the date the pattern was first used in the UK. Even the approximate date would be helpful. To this day I am still trying to substantiate a reference made by Averil Colby that she ‘knew’ of a Scottish woman who had patterns for Log Cabin patchwork going back to the ’45! That would be the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 and if her statement was true, that would certainly put the pattern’s use in patchwork about 100 years earlier than previously thought. Colby wrote extensively about applied textiles – on subjects ranging from patchwork and quilting to samplers and pin cushions. Some of the items she made herself are in the Guild Collection. Colby, however, did not use footnotes to substantiate references in her books. Over the years I have tried various avenues to get to the bottom of her statement but so far it remains the proverbial ‘needle in a haystack’.
As I said at the outset research is often frustrating!