Discover Vintage America - JANUARY 2016

Bow tie/necktie patterns ? where fashion meets quilting

While many quilt pattern names from the 1800s are cloaked in myth, mystery and marketing; the bow tie pattern is a clearly a representational block depicting male neckwear.

"The bow tie first entered the scene as a new style of necktie in the beginning of the 19th century. By the mid 1880s, the bow tie had become a staple in the fashion conscious man's wardrobe." (thebowtie.com) Not surprisingly, the Bow Tie quilt pattern also dates from the 1880s.

Detail, 1930s bow tie quilt made by the author's great-grandmother, Isabelle Day Rogers (Sandra Starley collection)

The block was first published as "Necktie" in the Ladies Art Company catalog of block patterns in 1895. Other names for this traditional block include: Colonial Bow Tie, Peekhole, and True Lover's Knot. As befits the block's masculine inspiration this pattern is the perfect design for a man's or boy's quilt and truly is the quintessential manly quilt pattern.

In researching this pattern, I found a number of references to its use in helping slaves navigate the Underground Railroad as part of a group of blocks said to contain a secret "quilt code." Of course, the Underground Railroad existed before the Civil War and helped many break away from slavery but not through clues on quilts. Slaves fleeing for their lives didn't need a bow tie quilt block to tell them to discard their old clothing and not look like slaves. Nor did they need a North Star block to know to head north to safety.

While quilts were used for warmth or protection, there is, "no historical evidence of quilts being used as signals, codes or maps. The tale of quilts and the Underground Railroad makes a good story, but not good quilt history," states Barbara Brackman in her article, "Facts & Fabrications: Unraveling the History of Quilts & Slavery."

1890s Amish bow tie quilt. (Donna Starley collection)

There are several different ways to construct a bow tie block and a method for every skill level from beginner to advanced quilters. The original construction method involves inset seams and precision sewing. This method, which is more difficult, is often accomplished by hand sewing which is better suited to the technique. In 1931, quilt designer Ruby McKim noted her necktie block "is about as simple to make as a bowknot is to tie." Since a Google search yields "14 steps to tie a bow tie," I think that indicates that she considered it quite difficult to sew.

At about the same time (early 1930s), a new quick sew method appeared on the quilting scene. This fast and easy method uses four squares with small triangles added on the two background squares to complete the center knot. Since stodgy traditional quilters often scoff at modern quilters for looking for easy tricks, it is nice to see that quilting shortcuts have been around for a long time.

Single bow tie blocks can be combined to create additional interesting secondary patterns. Joining four blocks together in a diamond shape creates the pattern known as Magic Circle or Dumbbell Block. With sashing added between the single ties, more blocks are created including Carrie's Choice (Clara Stone, 1906) and Midget Necktie (Kansas City Star, 1937).

The bow tie pattern continues to be very popular and online tutorials, quilt-alongs, block swaps, and classes abound for both traditional and modern bow tie quilts as well as three-dimensional blocks.

Collecting note -

There are many vintage and antique bow tie blocks and quilts currently available for reasonable prices so it might be time to "tie one on" and start your own bow tie collection.


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