Discover Vintage America - NOVEMBER 2016

Ocean Waves quilts comforted the land-locked

Nature has long inspired quilters. As American quilting developed in eastern seaboard settlements, it is not surprising that quilt designs and pattern names often carry a nautical flair.

In New England as elsewhere, quilts were influenced by the lives of those who lived there, and for many New Englanders the overwhelming force in their lives was the ocean. The mighty north Atlantic pounds the coast and provides nourishment, livelihood and danger to the inhabitants of the coast.

Ocean Waves top, circa 1890, 74" x 92" (Sandra Starley Collection)

Many traditional quilt patterns honor this influential neighbor! Some patterns which are common to older New England Quilts are Mariner's Compass, Ship of Life, Storm At Sea, Ocean Waves, and World Without End." (Christina Aubin,, 2012)

Ocean Waves quilts did not remain on the East Coast but traveled westward with the migrating population. By the latter half of the 19th century, "the Ocean Waves pattern was a staple of the American quiltmaker's repertoire ? even on the vast plains and in mountain reaches where the ocean itself seemed little more than a traveler's tall tale or a half forgotten dream." (American Patchwork & Quilting, 1985). In the early 20th century, the land-locked Midwestern Amish made many amazing full size quilts in the pattern, as well as crib quilts featuring just two or three blocks.

The pattern initially appeared in about 1855 and was very popular from 1880 to 1920. It was first published by Farm and Fireside in 1894 as Ocean Waves, which has remained the most common name for the block. Other published names include Waves of the Ocean, Odds and Ends, Odd Fellows Quilt, and Our Village Green.

The Ocean Waves pattern features pieced triangle waves that cascade across the quilt, especially when the blocks are set on point creating interlocking X's or a lattice look.
For a calmer sea, the blocks can be straight set which results in a cross design or grid pattern. The pattern is a "quilt of illusion" as it tricks the eye and it is often difficult to see the pattern and determine where one block ends and another begins. Unlike many quilt blocks that are framed,

Ocean Wave blocks are generally joined together, without sashing strips, in an allover design. The pattern consists of four elongated hexagons (or lozenges) pieced around a center diamond or square to create an octagon block. A lozenge piece is highlighted on the top row of the pink Ocean Wave variation shown here.

Jacob's Ladder/Ocean Waves variation c. 1900, 80" x 80"? (Sandra Starley Collection)

It was traditionally hand pieced with difficult inset and partial seams. In 1935, Quilt historian Carrie Hall noted it is "one of the authentic old-fashioned quilt patterns with a tang of the sea which shows its coastwise ancestry. It was a decided favorite with those who wished to put considerable piecing into the making of a beautiful quilt."

If you have always wanted to make one, you'll be happy to learn that there are many new techniques to make your journey easier and help you avoid seasickness. One trick is to divide the block into its four lozenge components and treat each as separate blocks. This method divides the large center diamonds or squares into four segments and eliminates the inset seams. If you like precise paper piecing and working in small scale, stop by Candace Moore's blog for a six-inch block pattern.
Bonnie Hunter has created an innovative pattern. She divided the pattern into two blocks: block A has four triangle sections (16 half squares) and block B features the center diamond with four triangles on each corner to square it up.

Maybe this is the year to turn your big scrap basket into a lovely Ocean Waves quilt. Enjoy the trip; I hope you'll have smooth sailing.

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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