The Log Cabin pattern became popular in the 1860s, during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. It celebrates a key element of the Lincoln legend–his humble birth in an Illinois log cabin in 1809.
There seem to be an infinite number of variations on the Log Cabin quilt. In all examples, though, the basic block is a square surrounded by rectangular strips of fabric. The center square is usually red, which in quilt lore represents the fire in the cabin's hearth. The rectangular strips are meant to represent the logs from which the cabin was built.
For the most part, the visual interest of Log Cabin quilts lies more in their color and overall pattern than in the quilting. In fact, the top and backing are often only tied or "'tacked" together rather than actually quilted. In examples that are quilted, typically the stitching is done "in the ditch" –that is, the quilting is sewn in the seams between the logs and is barely visible.
In keeping with the building theme, the best-known Log Cabin variation is the Barnraising pattern. This pattern consists of concentric diamonds radiating from the center of the quilt, reminiscent of the frame on which a barn is built. Other popular variations have names such as Courthouse Steps, Split Rail Fence, Streak of Lightning, Straight Furrows, and Windmill Blades.
While the popularity of the Log Cabin pattern continues today, the greatest number of examples that are of interest to collectors were produced in the last 40 years of the 19th century. Quilts from that time may be made of cotton, wool, silk, or a combination of these fabrics. Log Cabin quilts run the gamut from rough, utilitarian bedcovers to extremely fine pieces meant for display.
The blocks of the border and the interior of this cotton quilt are in good proportion to one another. Overall, the color and scale of the quilt are well balanced.
The relatively large scale of the blocks combined with the n arrow shape of this woolen quilt give it a somewhat unfinished appearance. Had the horizontal sides ended with the corners of the diamond, it would have a more completed look. As it is, it appears as though the maker ran out of space for the design.
Few patterns in the early 19th century had standardized names. More often, they were known by personal references, such as "Aunt Sara's basket pattern." Even at the end of the century, when periodicals circulated patterns, they were not always named. And even when pattern names were given and fairly well established, the names sometimes changed. Political and social events frequently stimulated such revisions. The Variable Star Pattern, for example, was renamed Tippecanoe and Tyler Too, a reference to the 1840 presidential campaign slogan of William Henry Harrison. When the business of publishing patterns proliferated in the early 20th century, names became more standardized, yet variations persisted. Whereas some designs, such as Irish Chain and Double Wedding Ring, are universally understood, many others continue to be known by more than one name. Mariner's Compass, for example, is also known as Chips and Whetstones and Rising Sun. These variations derive from individual preference and regional conventions. The stories or sentiments evoked by pattern names can be as interesting to collect as the quilts.
Log Cabin blocks are constructed using a method different from most patterns. Instead of being built up seam by seam, they are sewn directly onto a foundation fabric, usually a square of cotton muslin. This gives the technique its name–foundation patchwork.
To create a Log Cabin with this technique, the first piece sewn down is the small central square that represents the hearth. Then the logs of the cabin are added in concentric rows that spiral around and out from the center. The quilter applies the fabric strip for each log upside down, sews it in place, folds it open so that the right side of the fabric shows, and then presses it. Another name for this process is pressed work. Crazy quilts are also made on foundation blocks.
Many Log Cabin quilts made between the 1860s and 1880s were created from popular dress fabrics such as lightweight wools or wool blended with cotton or silk. (Wool blended with silk is called wool challis.) These finely woven materials were supple enough to allow for delicate piecework. During the last decade of the 19th century, however, dress styles changed. They incorporated heavier wools, which were more difficult to manage when reworked into quilts. The Log Cabin examples made from these fabrics in the 1890s tend to be coarser, with wider strips.
Log Cabin quilt makers chose combinations of fabrics that included solid colors, floral or geometric prints, and plaids in both dark and light colors. The placement of light and dark colors, within each block and throughout the setting of the entire quilt top, yielded a remarkable array of dominant and secondary patterns. Some of these settings–Windmill Blades and Straight Furrows (seen below), for example–were made in such numbers that they have acquired their own standardized names.
This pattern is squally well known as Pineapple Log Cabin. Both the pattern itself and the use of color give this cotton quilt exceptional, whirling movement. The Windmill Blades pattern is often made on a larger scale with fewer blocks. That, too, is very effective in creating the impression of whirling blades.
More often, the variation of Log Cabin known as Straight Furrows is made with diagonal rows of light and dark color. When the light and dark zigzag, it is called Streak of Lightning.