Discover Vintage America - NOVEMBER 2019

A charming history – charm quilts through the centuries, Part three

Every day we are making quilt history, it is a living history. I was reminded of this while recently discussing charm quilts with quilt historians and quilt makers. It is exciting to share their stories.

Because charm quilt makers tend to shoot for quilts made with 999 or 1,000 different pieces, the resulting quilts are demanding endeavors. Even more daunting are the Millennium, Year 2000 or Y2K quilts, made at the turn of the century, and often displaying 2,000 different pieces of fabric!


Remember, no two pieces are supposed to be alike. Keeping track of all those fabrics and making sure there are no repeats is taxing. Some makers embrace the task and take pleasure in being able to make quilts from their stash.

Maine quilter, Wendy Reed said she is, "often obsessed with making sure I use no repeats in many of my quilts. One of the advantages of having a substantial stash." She proudly pieced out "2,000" in tiny squares across her Millennium quilt and jokes "about the fact that I did not have to swap or shop to come up with 2,000 different fabrics!"

Doris Gerard is working on a series of very small-scale charm quilts. She discovered she could "cut out fabric pieces for eight quilts from one five-inch charm square. Thimble, Octagon, Kite, 60-degree and 72-degree Diamonds, Clamshell, Equilateral triangle and a tiny 60-degree Diamond Star." The Thimble charm now, "has 4,200 different fabrics sewn together with approximately 3,500 in a bin waiting to be added," Gerard said.

Amassing all those fabric pieces, cutting and sewing them back together, often takes years, if not decades to complete. Not surprisingly, this adds to the likelihood of those annoying repeats.
California quilter, Patt Seitas choose a lighthearted approach to the almost inevitable repeats. She turned the problem of losing track of fabrics into entertainment.

Seitas said that charm quilts, "are challenging since it always seems like I have duplicate patches show up. On a group project, they were so many that I gave up and called it a game quilt – can you find the matching patches?"

In 1999, Brenda Grampas started her hand-pieced queen-sized Millennium quilt comprising 1,800 apple cores (pictured in Part 2) as "a fabric study of fabrics available to the quilter at Y2K." She stitched and collected fabrics from family and friends until 2004. "When putting it together I noticed two duplicate fabrics, thus the title, 'Nearly Charming'." She "hand pieced it and it was a take-along project for about five years," Grampas noted.

Grampas' story depicts several common charm quilt themes. Many of these quilts were hand-pieced with standard piecing or over paper templates (English paper piecing). They were popular as portable hand piecing projects that helped pass time at ball games or doctor's appointments.

Another common thread was a desire to document a fabric time period or one's collection, especially of antique reproduction fabrics. Israeli quilter Ady Hirsch noted: "I have a huge stash, so decided to set myself a challenge by making a charm quilt without repeats. Tumbling Blocks seemed ideal because the light-medium-dark play enabled me to use a maximum number of fabrics."

California quilter Susie Wright also chose Tumbling Blocks. Her top was made in the early 1990s as she learned quilt history by studying and recreating antique quilts.
Illinois quilt restorer Ann Wasserman made charm quilts for her babies in the 1990s. She'd "heard the bit of folklore that a charm quilt that repeats one and only one fabric has special magic. So that's what I did."

I hope you will be inspired to record a special event or showcase your fabric collection with a charming quilt.

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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