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New Pathways into Quilt History written by Kimberly Wulfert, www.antiquequiltdating.com

Stars on Quilts
by Stacy C. Hollander,
Senior Curator at American Folk Art Museum

Super Stars: Quilts from the American Folk Art Museum
November 16, 2010 - September 25, 2011
American Folk Art Museum
(branch location at 2 Lincoln Square)

Quiltmakers have always sought inspiration from the world around them, introducing the outdoors into the domestic interior through bedcovers that may reflect the colors of the landscape, the imagery of flowers in a garden, or animal and insect life. Stars, some of the most important elements of the natural world, are also a beloved and enduring motif in American quilts. Stars appeared in pieced bedcovers as early as the eighteenth century and remain popular with quilt artists today. Their ethereal light has guided nighttime travelers on sea and on land; their faraway presence has become the stuff of dreams when pieced, appliquéd, or embroidered into the form of a quilt.

Stars have always signified something special: brilliance, power, magic. Their symbolic association with God and his created universe removed the icon from ordinary usage. Although eight-pointed stars appear frequently in Islamic decorative arts and on early non-Western textiles, in Western culture the imagery largely had been reserved for painted representations of the canopy of heaven: a host of stars against an ultramarine or cobalt ground. Stars were also embroidered onto religious vestments; some of the most exquisite examples date back to medieval times and were stitched with an embroidery technique known as Opus Anglicanum, or English work, often with gold or silver-gilt thread. A very few items of embroidered secular clothing of this period featured stars, as did some coats of arms and heraldic banners.

Stars do not make a major appearance in American quilts until the last quarter of the eighteenth century, when they were increasingly used as a pieced field motif. This was no doubt a response, at least in part, to the design of the flag of the newly formed United States. Conceived as a “new constellation,” the canton featured white five-pointed stars against a cobalt background, evoking once again the moral certitude of the heavenly canopy, as well as the strength of America’s victory. By this time, stars were also a strong element in the neoclassical lexicon. Their presence on quilts allowed the tenets of the classical world to resonate with the new republic in a highly fashionable manner.

It was not until the turn of the nineteenth century that a single eight-pointed star moved front and center in whole-cloth quilts, usually pieced in a solid-color glazed wool known as calimanco. But with the invention of the kaleidoscope in 1816, art and science took an unanticipated and dazzling turn. Quiltmakers, especially, embraced the refracted imagery produced by the kaleidoscope. Large single stars now blazed across cotton quilt tops, pieced from multitudes of diamonds that scintillated in rings from the center to the points. Staggered rows of repeated stars danced across the surfaces of bedcovers. By the Victorian era, the aspect of stars changed once again with the influence of exotic ideas from the Near East. Star motifs were interpreted for a new age in silk, velvet, and brocade show quilts."


Lone Star  |  Bethlehem Star  |  Blazing Star
Broken Star  |  Sunburst  |  Feathered Star

Super Stars

Perhaps the most visually dazzling and—technically challenging—star quilts are those that feature a single large star blazing across the expanse of the textile. These are almost always constructed of equilateral-diamond-shaped patches whose points converge at the center and then radiate in concentric rings until the eight points of the star. Precision in the cutting and assembling of the diamond patches is essential to the success of this type of quilt which goes by several different names depending upon nuances in the use of color and fabric, layout, and size.

The Lone Star, whose name may in fact be associated with Texas, the lone star state, always fills the quilt top. Various effects can be achieved through the use of dark and light fabrics, warm and cold colors, and the contrast of the star against the background fabric. The Star of Bethlehem is constructed in the above fashion, but the quilt top might feature several stars rather than one and they may be of variable sizes. Sunburst or Starburst is an overall diamond-pieced design that begins with an eight-pointed star in the center. The area between each of the points is filled with two diamond patches, initiating a sequence of. elongated diamonds or triangles. As the star grows, these fillers enable the pattern to cover the entire surface of the quilt. A Broken Star is a Lone Star interrupted by solid square blocks in between each of the eight points. The star is further superimposed upon a square or two intersecting squares, creating right angles between the outer points.

Ohio Stars and Variable Stars
Ohio Star is a nine-patch block Variable Star is a sixteen-patch block. Central square surrounded b eight points made from right triangles. Variable stars tend to have plain square centers while Ohio Stars may have centers further subdivided by four triangles. Two of the oldest designs in America, often used in the borders of early center medallion quilts. The early Variable Stars quilt in this exhibition features a rising star in the center medallion completely surrounded by rows of ohio stars. Ohio and Variable Stars took on starring roles as the old-fashioned center medallion style of quilt evolved into repeated blocks in the nineteenth century. The ohio or variable star was one of the first deign motifs to be adapted into this new quilt construction. Ohio and variable stars are very versatile, whether spaced in straight rows, touching, or set on a diagonal.

Blazing Stars

Quilts with more than eight points are sometimes categorized as Blazing Stars. These patterns may originate from a six- or more pointed star, and often are confused with Mariner’s Compass, which originates from a four-pointed star in the center.

Another description of broken star

The complex Broken Star pattern gives the impression of a Lone Star set within a starry crown. The separation between the rings is clarified through the use of solid-color square blocks placed between each of the eight points of the Lone Star. The second ring begins with the center of a lone star repeated eight times around ieach square. Looked at another way, one large square is superimposed at a diagonal on a second square, forming right angles between the outer points; additional triangles are placed in between each of the points. Although the pattern seems to have emerged in the early twentieth century, its roots may be traced to the antique Islamic design of two squares superimposed at right angles to form an eight-pointed star."

Stacy C. Hollander
Senior Curator


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© 2008 - 2015 Kimberly Wulfert, PhD. Absolutely no copies, reprints, use of photos or text are permitted for commercial or online use. One personal copy for study purposes is permitted.

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