Discover Vintage America - JANUARY 2017

Honey Bee pattern combines piecing and appliqué skills

Like many of today's popular blocks, the Honey Bee pattern was first published during the 1930s Quilt Revival, a time when many antique quilt patterns were updated and named (or renamed several times) with newspapers and other publications regularly featuring quilt patterns.

Honey Bee Quilt, c. 1860, Donna Starley Collection

Almost all were said to have early American origins, even if they had just been drafted in the writer's studio. However, the origins of the Honey Bee pattern do go back to one of the earliest pieced blocks – the humble 9 patch.

In the early 1800s as quilters began expanding beyond whole cloth designs they started with simple geometric blocks like the 4 patch and 9 patch. A 19th century Honey Bee quilt is shown here, an elegant circa 1860 indigo blue and white beauty. This earlier version is based on a single 9 patch block with appliqué details and it is the pattern one finds when searching for Honey Bee quilts made before 1930. The pattern dates back to the 1840s with a documented example that is dated 1844 (on the quilt) and perhaps back to the 1830s.

Simple illustration of the basic Honey Bee pattern

The block has evolved throughout the years and become more complex. The current version actually features two different 9 patches - an even 9 patch center incorporated into an uneven 9 patch block, a pleasing repetition and variation. (See the illustration.) The earlier versions tend to have a solid, un-pieced center but with same three appliquéd leaves in each corner.

In looking at the pattern, one can almost hear the buzzing and see the bees flying home to their hive in the center of the block. Nature clearly was the inspiration for the Honey Bee moniker, first published in the Kansas City Star (1929) and soon followed by Ruby Short McKim (1930), Nancy Cabot (Chicago Tribune, 1933) and Hall and Kretsinger (1935). Nature also inspired the lyrical "Birds in the Air" name from thread makers Coats and Clark (1942). Perhaps the most unusual name for the block "Blue Blazes" (Hall, 1935) was also inspired by some soaring bluebirds?

"Birds and Bees" quilt, c. 1870. Sandra Starley Collection

The pattern is adaptable for every skill level and is made using a number of techniques – hand or fusible machine appliqué and standard or strip piecing. It is the perfect teaching tool for basic piecing and appliqué methods, leading to its popularity in the sampler album classes of the 1980s and the 1990s. For years, the National Quilting Association used the pattern as a test block for certifying teachers in their certification program as the pattern requires the maker to demonstrate skill in both piecing and appliqué. In The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt, historians Hall and Kretsinger noted it is "a charming example of combining piecing and appliqué. It is a bit less trouble to piece the entire block and appliqué the bees' wings and bodies afterward."

It appears that not many antique or vintage examples of the pattern were made based on the numbers that appear in the literature and online. A search of the Quilt Index for Honey Bee produced five quilts while a search for Ocean Waves showed 720 results and many other patterns have thousands of results. An especially unusual example of this uncommon pattern is shown above, an antique Honey Bee that has been paired with delightful bird appliqués. I hope you'll be on the lookout for this charming pattern that just may buzz by while you are at an antique mall or searching online.

Sandra Starley is nationally certified quilt appraiser, quilt historian, and avid antique quilt collector. She travels throughout the U.S. presenting talks on antique quilt history, fabric dating classes and trunk shows as well as quilting classes. Learn more at Send your comments and quilt questions to

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