I am a sucker for obscure genres of quilts—especially when I see echoes of those unique styles generations later, blowing on the embers to revive them. So, I’m dying to tell you all about Tile quilts.
Tile quilts are a bit like the plainer cousins of Crazy quilts: a mix of varied shapes often arranged within blocks. But Crazy quilts boast fancy fabrics and elaborate embroidery stitches. Whereas the blocks in a Tile quilt feature mostly cotton print fabrics that have been cut into irregular shapes and have been hand appliquéd down so that the shapes don’t touch, leaving a thin line between shapes where the muslin backing fabric shows through. The thin lines resemble grout, and, at some point, historians started calling these rather rare textiles “Tile quilts.”
My Favorite Tile Quilt
The first Tile quilt that caught my eye online was a true barn burner: the Hattie Burdick quilt in the collection of the International Quilt Museum (IQM). The Museum believes this quilt was made between 1860 and 1870 by four women, including the spinster Hattie Burdick, whose name is appliquéd onto a block near the middle.
Since I was going to be in Lincoln, Nebraska, this summer for an Advisory Board meeting, I asked Head of Collections Carolyn Ducey if I could meet the object of my obsession in person. She led me back into the collection storage area, where she had also displayed three other Tile quilts owned by the IQM.
Seeing this masterpiece in person left me breathless, as I studied the 30 full blocks and the six half blocks that run along each side, all the blocks crowded with diverse images and fanciful shapes. Clearly, the half blocks on the right and left sides were once joined. Why did the makers cut them in half? To put Hattie’s name closer to the center? Who knows? Although labeled a quilt, the Burdick is only a top: The museum has stitched a thin white binding around the edge to prevent raveling.
The wild variety was a feast for my eyes. There are some blocks with fussy cut shapes centered, including flowers, a cross, a horseshoe, three playful kittens, three playful puppies, and two Arab horsemen brandishing swords. There are also a handful of animals, including a bird, butterfly, and elephant that are cut out of solid fabrics and appliquéd in place. Plus, I saw several blocks with rectangular shapes in lines that resemble bricks. Some Tile quilts feature a higher proportion of such blocks and have been called Brick Wall or Pavement quilts by makers. But the blocks I love most in this quilt feature wonky shapes that remind me of nonsensically gerrymandered counties on voting maps. I try to picture the makers cutting and sewing down these shapes that would make a jigsaw puzzle cutter weep, and I imagine their amusement.
Details of the Hattie Burdick quilt, including the center block where her name is appliquéd.
There is something about the friction between the even, disciplined “grout” lines in the Burdick quilt and the wild improv vibe that comes from all those random shapes that stirs my blood.
I’m not alone in being fascinated by this 19th-century quilt craze that was even more short-lived than the original heyday of Baltimore Album quilts. Bobbi Finley, who co-wrote a book called Tile Quilt Revival in 2010 with her friend Carol Jones, has been stalking these beauties for years, and said she’s only found about 30 examples.
In her book, which includes several patterns for making modern versions, she shares some stunning examples from museum collections including the Shelburne Museum in Vermont and the New England Quilt Museum in Massachusetts, in addition to the Hattie Burdick at the IQM.
“I just find them fascinating,” Bobbi said. “Most of those we found come from New England, especially Connecticut and Massachusetts. Historians have named them Tile quilts but I think people thought they were just doing applique. Because they weren’t called Tile quilts originally, it’s very hard to search for them but I bet there are still some in little historical societies in New England. If I had the time and money to go hunt them down, I would.”
While immersing myself in the wild splendor of Tile quilts, I started asking myself what modern quilters might be channeling their spirit, which led me immediately to the work of improv art quilter Heidi Parkes.
Many of Heidi’s handmade quilts start with a whole cloth base, often a bed sheet, to which she appliqués many pieces of fabric of various sizes and shapes. Some of those shapes are recognizable, like a rabbit or a plant leaf, but others are just pebble-like scrappy bits.
When I reached Heidi by phone and asked if Tile quilts had inspired her, she laughed and said, “I was totally unaware of Tile quilts but when you emailed about them, I looked at what I’ve posted on my Pinterest page and I already had one on there. Now, I can definitely see the connection to my work.”
Heidi believes that more direct inspirations for quilting this way include a quilt made by her grandmother when she was little that consisted of 16 blocks with a white background. Various family members appliquéd animals and other shapes into those squares. Her Scavenger Hunt quilt from 2020 includes rows of little wonky squares appliquéd on a background along with bigger bits. Out of her output so far, A Breath Has Four Parts, a quilt she began in 2019 on a trip to India, is the most closely related to a Tile quilt, but her colorful appliquéd bits aren’t corralled into blocks, like most Tile quilts.
My Second Favorite Tile Quilt
But that approach wasn’t completely unprecedented in the 19th century. So I’ll close with my second favorite Tile quilt, an untitled masterpiece dated 1895, featured in the Tile Quilt Revival and belonging to Wendy Woodruff of Austin, Texas. When I tracked her down, Wendy said that this marvelous quilt was handed down to her from her former mother-in-law Jean Harnsberger of Lincoln, Nebraska, who restored and collected quilts.
Bobbi Finley said that she first wondered if the names Olive and Alvo appliquéd into the quilt were people, but she shared that there is a Nebraska town named Alvo and a creek named Olive. Sadly, nothing is known about the maker and the circumstances under which this was made. But it’s the brightest and most exuberant of the Tile quilts I’ve seen. Did she give herself any kind of plan or grid? Where did she start and stop? I love that the maker didn’t feel she needed the restrictions of blocks. It feels so modern to me and makes me want to start cutting and stitching my own free-spirited variation.