Discover Vintage America - OCTOBER 2019

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

Last month, we learned about the origins of charm quilts dating back to the second half of the 1800s. The phenomenon was related to a similar fad for collecting 999 different buttons known as charm strings. The charm quilts would also contain all different fabrics or at least that was the goal and the maker would also try for 1,000 pieces in the quilt. After the revival in the 1930s, charm quilts were mostly forgotten as quilting faded out before the rebirth in 1976 of traditional crafts sparked by the Bicentennial.

Charm quilt top 1998-2019, Triangle Stars by Paula Cochrane (Australia) hand-pieced

Shortly thereafter, in 1980, renowned quilt historian Cuesta Benberry published an article in Quilter's Newsletter Magazine on charm quilts and is credited with starting another revival of charm quilting. The craze was cemented by two more articles on the subject in 1988 by Ms. Benberry along with Jinny Beyer's influential 1985 book The Scrap Look which featured a chapter on charm quilts. Fabric companies and shops again offered charm sets and exchanges were facilitated by magazines and quilters were soon trading sets of unique fabrics through the mail.

Millennium or Y2K charm quilts

Around the turn of the most recent century, aka the Millennium in 2000, there was a further resurgence of the charm quilt fad. A number of quilters actively exchanged fabrics so they could create special Y2K (year 2000) charm quilts featuring 2,000 different fabrics symbolizing the year 2000 and the end of two millennia. Others made charm quilts with 1,000 pieces to mark the end of 1,000 years. Some chose other variations like 100 different fabrics to represent the end of the century.

Most of these projects involved a lot of cutting, trading, and then sewing to create these time capsules of fabric from the 1900s. The developing internet quilting communities made finding and exchanging fabrics throughout the country and even the world a challenging but doable endeavor. The Y2K quilts were a special keepsake and a great way to usher in a new century and a new millennium. Fabric companies produced special year 2000 fabrics and quilters avidly collected them and took delight in adding them to their Y2K charm quilts.

Many of us collected them with the best of intentions for making a Y2K charm quilt and still have treasured millennium fabrics in our fabric stashes. Hey, these are probably now considered a valuable vintage collection.

Millennium Y2K Quilt, 1999-2004, "Nearly Charming" Apple Core- Brenda Grampas (Florida), 1,799 different fabrics with one duplicate, hand-pieced and hand quilted


Modern charm quilts

Today, quilters are making stash documentation or inventory quilts and creating a visible catalog of their vast stashes of fabric. And "charm quilts" have a new meaning to many quilters as fabric companies have been selling "charm packs" small pre-cut squares of each different fabric in new fabric lines or collections. They are a modern twist on the charm quilt tradition. These packs are a cheaper way of trying out or sampling new fabrics without the investment of buying fat quarter collections that can be quite expensive. Though related to the old charm quilts with all different fabrics, charm packs usually have at least a few repeated fabrics.

So, if you want to make a true charm quilt be careful when grabbing a charm pack.
While researching this column, I contacted quilting friends for their experiences of making charm quilts and I received a wonderful outpouring of stories and pictures. Come back next month to learn a bit more about charm quilts from the 1980s and 1990s and some that have been a few decades in the making.

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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