Discover Vintage America - October 2015

The Log Cabin quilt � a most versatile pattern

One of the most iconic American quilt patterns, the Log Cabin block actually has an exotic history dating back to Great Britain and ancient Egypt. It appears that the British Museum's popular display of Egyptian mummies in the early 1800s led to the creation of this quilt pattern in England before 1850. The cat mummies were wrapped in cloth arranged in light and dark diagonal designs very similar to pieced Log Cabin blocks. The resulting quilt blocks were appropriately given "the English names of Egyptian or Mummy pattern" and are earlier than American versions.

Barn Raising c. 1890, 72" x 83," Sandra Starley antique quilt collection.

Simultaneously, on the Isle of Man in the North Sea between England and Ireland, another style of Log Cabin block was being created. The Manx quilt block was called Roof or Roof Tile and was made with folded strips sewn on a fabric foundation by hand. No batting or backing was needed resulting in a more economical product.

The Log Cabin pattern seems to have travelled across the ocean with British emigrants during the mass migrations of the mid-1800s.

Mid-century Americans were already enchanted with the romantic frontier imagery of the log cabin, which featured prominently in the successful presidential campaigns of William Henry Harrison (1840) and Abraham Lincoln (1860, 1864).

Meanwhile, Daniel Webster bemoaned the fact that he was not born in a log cabin during his three fruitless presidential campaigns (1836, 1848, and 1852). The folksy Western imagery moved from politics to patchwork and the American Log Cabin or Pioneer Block was born. The name probably became attached to the block due to the similar construction between log cabin homes and Log Cabin quilt blocks.

Courthouse Steps, c. 1880, detail, Sandra Starley antique quilt collection.

Americans quickly embraced the quilt pattern and by the 1870s there were special Log Cabin show categories. It is one of the easiest blocks to sew as it uses simple rectangle strips and center squares with no curves, angles, or inset seams to trip up new quilters.

It may well be the most versatile quilt block and can be arranged in myriad combinations and settings to create very different designs. One of the favorite settings is called Barn Raising with blocks radiating from the center in concentric circles. Also popular are Straight Furrows with strong diagonal lines and the Zigzag or Streak of Lightening settings. Another variation is the Courthouse Steps pattern, which is pieced with a center "H" for a more linear, stair step effect.

Contemporary quilters make Log Cabin quilts in a variety of styles. Many use regular piecing while quite a few rely on foundations of fabric or paper to create their log units.

And more have chosen to liberate the Log Cabin pattern leaving behind even, straight line piecing for the free form or improvisational piecing, which is particularly popular with the new Modern Quilt movement. This style results in a looser, unconventional version of the Log Cabin. The pattern, in its many forms, is a true chameleon and is a perennial favorite.

The bibliography for Log Cabin quilts is lengthy as indicated by the following book title: Log Cabin Quilts Unlimited: The Ultimate Creative Guide to the Most Popular and Versatile Pattern.

In her Log Cabin Notebook, quilting legend Mary Ellen Hopkins noted: "I put this block into first place years ago and it has NEVER been bumped from that spot. You could easily dedicate your entire quilting life to this block and never repeat yourself."

I hope you'll be inspired to create your own version or find an antique or vintage Log Cabin to add to your quilt 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�Send your comments and quilt questions to