What IS a Quilt Block, Anyway?

So, what IS a quilt block, anyway?  We spent all this time talking about tools and supplies, about 1/4″ seam allowances, about the history of quilting, but before we move on to actually putting your sampler quilt together, it seems to make sense that we define how we’ll be doing that–I like to give a good overview before we really get into the meat, so all the lessons that continue will have real context.

In its simplest form, a quilt block is a section of a quilt.  To make a large-scale quilt, each of those sections is stitched together in a repeating pattern to form a larger pattern.  Quilt blocks are usually made of small patchwork, and when the geometry of that patchwork lines up with other blocks, a greater design emerges.

The vast majority of traditional quilt blocks are made of geometric shapes like squares, rectangles, triangles, diamonds and stars.  They are almost always symmetrical.  By altering the orientation of smaller pieces of patchwork within the boundaries of the block, you can create a wide variety of designs from simple shapes–for example, every one of the blocks above is made up of smaller sections of black-and-white triangles stitched together along the hypoteneuse, but each block is different because of the orientation of each triangle.

a pieced block from the 2019 Murder Mystery Quilt project

In modern quilting, on the other hand, many of these shapes are simplified, and symmetry isn’t emphasized anywhere near to the same degree.  In fact, “wonky” or assymetrical blocks are often seen as typical of the modern quilting style (though this is not always the case, as we’ll talk about below).  In the quilt design above, notice how the same shapes are repeated, but their sizes are altered and their placement varied to give what could be a dull layout some ooomph.  See this post about the process of designing a modern quilt block, and how that inspiration struck.

A modern sampler quilt, then, is one made of individual quilt blocks, but where each block varies from the other blocks in the quilt top.  In the image above, you can see thirty different quilt block designs, all done in a similar color palette, and all different from one another.  Samplers have been a long-standing means of learning skills and showing them off, and are seen in all the textile traditions: embroidery, cross stitch, quilting, knitting, crochet.  Making ours modern is largely about letting go of the rules of symmetry and perfection, and embracing a more modern color palette.

Knowing how big a roadblock it can be to feel overwhelmed by the fabrics and colors out there–and how deeply many of us would like to avoid making a ho-hum Gramma quilt–we’ll spend this afternoon’s lesson discussing color schemes, basic color theory, and touching briefly on pre-cut fabrics and fabric collections.  See you then!  (Costumes optional.)