Researching Block Names

Frances' Grecian Cross
Frances’ Grecian Cross

Recently Frances posted on Twitter about the name of a block. She posted the picture of a quilt. I didn’t see the thread until several people had chimed in and Nonnie had tried to draft the block. There are three tools I use to find the names of blocks:

  1. Barbara Brackman’s book, Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns, published by the American Quilter’s Society, 1993. I have the reprinted edition. This book is out of print, so you should buy it where ever you see a good used copy.
  2. The Quilter’s Album of Patchwork Patterns by Jinny Beyer, published by Breckling Press 2009. I wrote a review of it, which you can find in a post from 2013.
  3. Blockbase, an electronic version of the Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns.

Brackman’s book is the original scholarly block dictionary. It was not the first block dictionary, but it was the first book, that I know of, that attempted to organize blocks into families/type and note their origin.

Beyer’s book went much farther, but, clearly, built off Brackman’s book. There are more references to sources, more drafting information and more of an attempt to group blocks in the Quilter’s Album of Patchwork Patterns.

Grecian Cross Notecard
Grecian Cross Notecard

BlockBase is a wonderful tool for actually drafting blocks and printing templates or rotary cutting directions. However, not all of the information from the Brackman book is included in BlockBase. Many of the blocks have only the Brackman number rather than all of the names. I make an effort to amend the notecards in BlockBase as I come across new or additional information that would improve retrieval. For example, a very common name of the block above is Grecian Cross. This name was listed in the Brackman book, but was not in BlockBase, so I added it.

It is helpful to know something about drafting to use any of these tools. By ‘drafting,’ I mean knowing the basic structure of blocks, e.g. is the basic structure a 4 patch or a 9 patch? The reason this is important is that if you only have a picture of the block, it cuts down on the number of blocks you need to look through if you know the basic structure.

Sadly, using patterns all the time does not foster the understanding of the basic structure of blocks, because the quiltmaker only needs to follow the directions of the designer/patternmaker.

Knowing a block’s structure is also helpful in designing quilts of your own. You may not want to mix 9 patch structured blocks with 4 patch structured blocks as the seam lines won’t always line up nicely. Or you may want to look a a variety of different 16 patch blocks so that you can design a quilt with an interesting secondary pattern.

These tools are not only good for looking up block names, but are also good to learn to understand the structure of blocks, get inspiration for new quilts and see how the authors have colored the quilts. You really need these books, if you have any serious interest in quiltmaking beyond buying fabric and making quilts.

You might notice that blocks have different names. People took blocks and republished them under different names or added a line here or divided a square there and deemed it a new block. This phenomenon is still happening today and it is something of which we just need to keep track.



Author: Jaye

Quiltmaker who enjoys writing and frozen chocolate covered bananas.

12 thoughts on “Researching Block Names”

  1. Jaye, I have all three of those block sources and use them all the time. What I do not have is any drafting skills. I have been trying to learn as I go and am just beginning to appreciate how important it is to understand drafting of blocks.

    I so enjoyed trying to draft the block. I did it both with paper and colored pencils and using ELECTRIC QUILT 7. My skill in EQ7 is improving because I can now use the curved lines. I had tried going through BLOCK BASE and the books to find the name, but did not see or understand the structure you mentioned. I can see how important that skill is. Thanks for the explanation of how you were able to find the name of the block so quickly. Nonnie

    Hoping the comment gets posted.

  2. It’s my dream to find a print version of the Brackman book for under $50.

    Thanks for your input on the block and for all the knowledge you so generously share with the rest of us!

    Maybe we should try that block for our sampler quilt?


      1. I’m definitely up for it! In fact, I’ve been re-inspired and have all my sampler blocks up on my design wall. Let’s get this baby going again!

    1. 😉 Thanks for commenting and reading. I am glad to be able to teach and entertain you. My field is research and organization, so I am glad I am good at it otherwise I would wonder why people pay me!

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