September 10, 2012

Grecian Square

A friend of mine wrote and asked me why the Grecian Square blocks in the "red, white, and symbolic" quilt I recently wrote about have that name.  What is Grecian about them?

I had discovered the name of the block in Barbara Brackman's Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns.  If you are at all interested in quilt history, quilt collecting, etc., this is a book that you would enjoy having in your library.

Brackman's sources for the name are the "Nancy Cabot" syndicated newspaper column of the 1930s and the "Woman's World" periodical from the 20s and 30s.  Both of these, interestingly enough, are Chicago-based.  Both also published and sold quilt patterns.

If the colors are arranged differently than in this quilt, with the center square and the rectangles around it in the same fabric, it makes a plus sign cross.  Then the block is known as Greek Cross, because the patchwork resembles the plus-shaped Greek cross.  This block was published by Ruby Short McKim in her newspaper column, based in Independence, Missouri.  McKim also published patterns, and her book "101 Patchwork Patterns" was published in 1931.  
                                               Greek Cross                          Grecian Square

The 1930s, Depression era, was a boom time for quilts.  Making useful things cheaply from scraps, looking back to heritage and better days - all these things built up the love of quilting.  This era was also the beginning of the quilt pattern and book publishing industry that we know today - and the entry of women into the world of such nationwide quilting businesses, Ruby McKim being one of the most well-known. Her original pattern for Greek Cross can be seen here.  If you want to delve further into her life and her patterns, her heirs have created this website about her.

So it might be that, at some point, someone made the Grecian Square block as a color variation of the Greek Cross, and decided that since the patchwork shapes are the same, that the names should also be similar.

As I was making these little sketches, I placed the colors wrong at first - and look what I found!  Same patchwork, and yet another block.  Again referring to Brackman's book, I found that this block has a plethora of names (20!).  The ones I am most familiar with are Churn Dash and Monkey Wrench.  

That's when quilt patterns and names get both fun and confusing.  For such a long time, up until the Depression era really, quiltmaking was mostly an oral tradition.  If you've ever played Telephone as a child, you'll know how flexible oral tradition can be!  And with very straight-forward, easy to piece, patchwork like in this block, it's no wonder that it travelled around and collected lots of names.

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