Discover Vintage America - AUGUST 2016

Churn Dash or Monkey Wrench?

Have you been churning butter or fixing wagons recently? If not, then you might appreciate a bit of background information on the origins of the two most common names for this versatile nine patch pattern. "Churn Dash" is based on the block's similarity to a dash or dasher; the cross-shaped paddle in the center of a butter churn. "Monkey Wrench" is based on the block's resemblance to a fixed carriage or wagon wrench and also to adjustable wrenches (look at the top row of the block and visualize the gripping teeth of a wrench). The block and these names have been around since about 1855 with the first publication in 1884 as "Double Wrench" in Farm and Fireside magazine.

Amish Churn Dash, 70" x 80", c. 1920, Donna Starley collection

Many quilt historians have discussed the origins of the two names. In 1915, Marie Webster, noted that, "inanimate objects, particularly those about the house, inspired many names for patterns" and mentioned both block names.

Similarly in 1929, Ruth Finley, observed "A source of quilt name inspiration quite as rich as political feeling was found in the trades and occupations of the times. … 'The Double Monkey Wrench,' 'The Churn Dash'… all these are names, previously noted, that came from women's familiarity with old-time callings." And in 1931, Ruby McKim wrote that, "The wrench design is an authentic, old time quilt pattern, and a very typical one too."

These utilitarian names were familiar to early quilt makers well acquainted with Butter Churns and Wrenches along with Broad Axes, Holes in the Barn Doors, Hens and Chickens, and Shoo Flies (additional names for the blocks). Regardless of which one of the 40-plus published names is used, the block is a variation of a nine patch; composed of a center square, half- square triangle corners with four rectangle sets or squares in between. The blocks are pieced as either an even nine patch or uneven nine patch. Don't be confused, the names Monkey Wrench and Churn Dash have been used interchangeably for many years to refer to both versions.

Monkey Business, 68" x 83", c.1890, Sandra Starley collection

Pattern designers are probably responsible for some of the romantic names for the blocks like: True Lover's Knot, Bride's Knot and Love Knot. This simple block can have a soft feel made in pink and white but in browns and shirtings has quite a masculine feel. The block is a true chameleon taking on the flavor of the fabrics, setting and sashing used. Modern quilters are using this characteristic to make this traditional block their own. They are making wonky versions, block in block versions and using crisp, clean, modern colors. Recently, on the modern blog circuit, there have been at least three "churn dash quilt alongs" evidencing the continued popularity of this timeless pattern.

And speaking of modern, both of the quilts shown here are antiques but have a very fresh feel. A wild version, fondly called "Monkey Business," pictured, shows the visual impact of an unusual pieced diamond sashing. And the unusual Amish version, close to 100 years old, would be the star of any modern quilt show. The uneven fading of two different purples has created an unexpected and innovative color placement with striking diagonal movement from light to dark. While the original quilter would be dismayed, you can color me inspired and I hope you'll be inspired too!

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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