Discover Vintage America - MARCH 2016

Caesar's Crown: An exciting and unusual pattern

A triumph of the skill and the tenacity of early American quilters, Caesar's Crown is a striking combination of Dresden Plate and Reel blocks. While the pattern appears to be appliquéd, it was usually hand-pieced, a technique quilt historian Barbara Brackman refers to as "show off piecing" due to the difficult curved seams. This exciting and unusual pattern was seen in the 1830s in the United States and a bit earlier in England. At the time of the block's origin, there were no sewing machines and people were more comfortable doing elaborate hand piecing, but this pattern was likely challenging even to the skilled seamstresses of that era. The block's glory days were 1840-'70, a time of fancy handwork.

Caesar's Crown signature quilt (detail), 84" x 85", dated 1851, Pennsylvania. (Sandra Starley collection)

To appreciate fully the Caesars's Crown, you need to examine the technical drafting required to create the pattern before stitching can even begin. In 1949, quilt educator, Marguerite Ickis offered these "simple" guidelines involving a 14-inch paper block. "Fold block diagonally each way across center and then across to get center creases. Draw in 2 circles. Use compass to draw center block. The tops of the diamonds will come along the fold in the block. Piece design and appliqué to block."

Predictably, this drafting method resulted in a large number of variations depending on the drafter's skill and interest. The pattern was also spread by observation and replication as it was seen in homes and at agricultural and county fairs, which resulted in even more changes and adaptations in the pattern. Surprisingly, this very difficult pattern was fashionable as a friendship or signature quilt pattern particularly in the 1840s and 1850s and even a hundred years later.
This variable pattern has many names including those inspired by the Bible and historical figures (A Crown of Thorns, King David's Crown, Caesar's Crown, and Star of Bethlehem); and nature (California Rose, Rose Album, and Sunflower).

King David's Crown quilt top, 1860s, Pennsylvania. (Sandra Starley collection) 

In 1931, quilt historian Ruby McKim published the "Strawberry" pattern and noted, "This intricate block has another name less luscious than 'Strawberry' but perhaps more colorful. It is sometimes called 'Full Blown Tulip' and pieced with turkey red center, orange and lemon, set together on all green background it is gorgeous."

The block was often made in red and green reflecting nature as well as the popular decorating colors of the 1850s era.

An unexpected delight of the pattern is the magic created when several blocks are joined without sashing to create a striking secondary design. The bells, flowers, or four-leaf clovers that emerge are especially charming. The negative space would be perfect for some flashy hand- or machine quilting or a black and white text print for a modern look.

However, the modern quilt movement has not yet embraced Caesar's Crown. This is likely because of the complex curved piecing and fussy nature of the pattern.

But quilters never shy away from a challenge and maybe this timeless beauty will become a hit again in time for its upcoming 200th birthday. I hope more quilters will try this pattern as it makes a beautiful quilt.

Collecting note:

Likely due to the difficult and intricate drafting and sewing involved in creating the pattern there are not a lot of examples available in the marketplace. Caesar's Crown quilts command prices more in line with appliqué quilts rather than simple pieced designs. While there are not many for sale on any given day, they are "out there" so start hunting now for this treasured pattern..


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

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