Discover Vintage America - JUNE 2016

The Rocky Road to Kansas

This name conjures up images of wagons full of bonneted prairie travelers busily sewing while careening across the endless Western frontier. "The hardships endured by the sturdy pioneers were constantly in the minds of the early American quilters and inspired many (quilt) names. 'Rocky Road to Kansas,' 'Texas Tears,' and 'Rocky Road to California', (all) have great interest as they reveal to us the thoughts of our great-grandmothers over their quilting frames," wrote Marie Webster in 1916.

Photo A: Grandma Belle's Rocky Road, c. 1930, 76" x 86", Isabell Day Rogers

However, the image of wagons of quilters is charming fiction. The Kansas Quilt Documentation Project found no proof that "any pioneers taking the road to Kansas when it was truly rocky made (this) string quilt, since the pattern appeared after railroads facilitated trips to Kansas." But simple descriptive names like "X Block" and "String Star" do not capture imaginations or sell quilt patterns in quite the same way and so the romantic myth of The West continues to roll on.

The pattern is often pieced with small scraps or strips of fabric known as strings and sewn to muslin or paper foundations. A string-pieced Rocky Road to Kansas pattern was initially published, along with 271 other designs by Ladies Art Company, in the first large scale mail-order quilt block catalog in 1895. The authors of The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt (1935), noted another method to make the block: "the four-pointed star is made of irregular shaped pieces sewed together 'Crazy' fashion, then cut into points," according to authors Hall and Kretsinger.

Photo B: Lancaster, PA, Rocky Road, c. 1890, 85" x 85"

My own great-grandmother, Isabell Rogers used these directions while creating her scrappy 1930s quilt in rural Utah. (See Photo A) She home-dyed cotton fabric salvaged from flour and sugar sacks for the purple background and used muslin foundations as a base for her crazy piecing. Some of her triangle points have three pieces and others have more than a dozen – a great method for using left over scraps.

The pattern can also be more formally pieced by joining evenly cut strips together (strip piecing) and then cutting the strip segments into triangles. The Kite Block first published in The Ohio Farmer (1897) features four strip-pieced kites flying nose to nose. I found a charming small-scale version of this pattern, circa 1890, from Lancaster County, PA with red and Lancaster Blue centers, a yellow framing row and a Double Pink background. Careful color placement and straight line or strip piecing helps control what could be a very wild quilt. (See Photo B) Despite the different construction method, this block is also known as Rocky Road to Kansas.

PhotoC: "Modern Belle", 2013, 48" x 48" Made by Donna Starley

The modern quilting movement has focused on blocks with simple clean lines and improvisational piecing so the scrappy Rocky Road to Kansas fits right in. (See Photo C) Contemporary versions are often made with neutral solid backgrounds, especially grays and either sewn on paper foundations or strip pieced. Most modern quilters make the pattern in square blocks and divide the background diamonds into two triangles to avoid tricky inset seams. Earlier makers were often piecing by hand and were much more comfortable with that technically difficult piecing. With new user-friendly methods and modernized color schemes, this pattern is as appealing today as when it caught the fancy of designers and quilters more than 100 years ago.


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 utahquiltappraiser.blogspot.com. Send your comments and quilt questions to SandraStarley@outlook.com

Covering Quilts Archive past columns