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The Patchwork Quilt and the Star Design

Patchwork and quilting are two of the oldest forms of needlework. Both were used in the colorful bed coverings favored as counterpanes in America from 1775 to about 1870 when starched pillow shams and Marseilles spreads became the fashion for the well-appointed bedroom.

Known as patchwork quilts, the designs were set in a white background of either linen or, after 1810, of cotton. The patterns were mostly geometric and their names were many. Those based on the star were the most popular. Five-pointed and set in a five-sided background which was framed by a circle, it was a compass pattern; six-pointed, it appeared in a triple six-sided design; and as eight-pointed, it was used in a number of ways.

A very arresting design was that of the large central star . Known as "Star of Bethlehem," it could appear singly against a white background or be surrounded by smaller stars or sunbursts, with or without floral appliques.

Patchwork quilts were tests of skill and patience on the part of needlewomen. For a "Star of Bethlehem," over a thousand diamond-shaped pieces of calico had to be carefully cut out and joined so that from a small central star they spread out in sunburst effect to form the large eight-pointed star of many colors. This was then set, like a patch, in the white background. The quilt was then ready for lining and interlining, after which it was put on a frame for the quilting bee. "Star of Bethlehem" quilts date from as early as 1775, but few examples made before 1820 will be found in good condition. The design remained popular to the middle of the nineteenth century and is the most important pattern found today.

From a decorative point of view, the height of quilt making was reached during the first half of the nineteenth century and many fine examples have survived in good condition. As with other forms of folk art they reflected the political, social, and economic affairs of their time and were named accordingly. Such names as "Whig Rose," "Wagon Tracks," "Dolly Madison's Star," "Road to California," and `Texas Star" recall events in American history and help to date the pattern, though not always the quilt.

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