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International Quilt Museum

The International Quilt Study Center & Museum (IQSCM) in Lincoln, Nebraska is partnering with American Patchwork & Quilting to share information on quilting traditions around the world.

Global Perspective: Log Cabin Designs


The origin of popular quilt patterns is often difficult to pinpoint. Log Cabin designs, created by blocks built from the center out and surrounded by strips of light and dark, are considered classically American. Yet the graphic pattern has been seen in the wrappings of mummified cats in ancient Egypt and in tile work in the Middle East. So does that mean this quilt, a log cabin variation known as Streak of Lightening, was a part of the textile tradition of Norway, the country in which it was stitched?

Although Norway has a rich tradition of woven coverlets, quilting was not part of its textile heritage. The Norwegian quilter Mathilde Schjander, who stitched this vibrant silk quilt as a gift for the marriage of her daughter Fredrikke to Ole Larsen sometime around 1870-1880, likely learned of the log cabin block in America. Schjander was one of the 25 percent of Norwegian immigrants in the 19th century who left the U.S. and returned to their homeland, carrying quilts and quiltmaking with them.

Photo courtesy of International Quilt Study Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2005.015.0001.

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Adapting to Different Cultures


As often happens, one country’s tradition was adapted to suit the needs and climate of another country and culture.

“Log cabin quilts were often foundation-pieced—the ‘logs’ stitched to a piece of muslin or other rough fabric—and so they didn’t have batting and weren’t quilted,” says Carolyn Ducey, curator at the International Quilt Study Center in Lincoln, Nebraska. Mathilde chose an unconventional finishing technique: about one-third of the way down the back of the quilt she created an opening that fastens with buttons. A wool blanket could be slipped inside, providing further insulation against cold, Nordic nights.

Photo courtesy of International Quilt Study Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2005.015.0001.

Tradition Begins in America


Log cabin blocks first showed up in America in 1861. There are a variety of theories about the pattern’s popularity. Political campaigns, including Abraham Lincoln’s in the 1860s, drew attention to log cabins. A Democratic newspaper, the New York Log Cabin, and a campaign songbook, the Log Cabin Songbook, both contributed to the log cabin’s rise as a national symbol. Whatever the reason it first gained attention, log cabin blocks continue to capture quilter’s imaginations.

“It’s often the first block you learn—it’s straight-forward with simple seams,” says Carolyn. “At the same time you can take that block and turn and twist it so many ways to create incredible designs. It’s versatile and dynamic.”

To learn more about the IQSCM’s extensive collection of more than 2,300 quilts and the history behind them, visit quiltstudy.org.

Photo courtesy of International Quilt Study Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2005.015.0001.

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