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Column #13

Rooster Tails and Toenail Catchers

Kate An example of shell, or “fan” quilting.
Photo by Alex Labry.

As is true for most human activities in which there is a community of shared interest, quilting has its own jargon—terminology that sounds odd or even indecipherable to those not “in-the-know.” Often imaginative, “quilt talk” is just one more thing to like about quilting.

Because language is always changing, terms that were common in years past are no longer used, while new ones come into vogue all the time. My Grandma Williams would often baste a wide piece of muslin she called a “chin cover”— the part that would go up under a person’s neck when sleeping under the quilt— along the top edge of her utility quilts.

Raising a bunch of boys on a farm during the Dust Bowl, she knew that necks might not always be squeaky clean at bedtime. It was a lot easier to remove and wash the chin cover than it was to wash the whole quilt. While the term “chin cover” (also known as “beard protector” for obvious reasons) sounds strange to our ears now, words that are frequently used today, such as “stash” or UFOs (referring to UnFinished Objects), would have sounded just as peculiar then to Grandma Williams.

Regional differences influence the language of quilts as well.  For example, quilters from one part of the country may refer to “Prairie Points,” while those from other areas might call the little folds of fabric used to border a quilt by other names, such as “Cat’s Ears” or “Dog’s Teeth.” And we’re all familiar with the way location affected the names of quilt patterns. Mathematical Star, Star of Bethlehem, Morning Star, Lone Star, and Star of the East all refer to the same quilt, to cite just one example.

Different perspectives can also determine terminology. A quilting design that was especially common on utility quilts in earlier times was the “shell,” or “clamshell.” Quilters could use a plate or a cup to mark the pattern, or even a pencil tied to a piece of string (by holding down the free edge of the string, it was possible to draw graduated arcs).

The shell design was also called the “Baptist Fan” or the “Methodist fan,” depending upon the quilter’s religious preference. Since the shell design was marked from the edges of the quilt, oftentimes there was gap in the middle where the shells didn’t quite meet. In such cases, this gap was called a “Hog’s back” after the hairy ridge on a razorback hog.

Often, we use words or phrases without having any idea of their origin. In her book, The Quilters Ultimate Visual Guide: From A to Z—Hundreds of Tips and Techniques for Successful Quiltmaking, Ellen Pahl describes the roots of the term for needles used in hand quilting.

“Quiltmakers required a needle in between the stoutness of the bronze ‘blunts’ and the longer, fine steel sharps. The ‘in-betweens’ for quilting had the strength to go through many layers of fabric and had a sharp point for piercing. This early categorizing of needles carries over in the name we now use for quilting needles, ‘betweens.’”

Sometimes quilting terms can be colorful and fun. Quilting “in the ditch” means that stitches lie almost in the seams of a block or at the edge of an appliquéd piece. A “rooster tail” refers to an untrimmed knot after a quilting thread has been tied off.  And finally, a “toenail catcher” alludes to a quilting stitch that is so large, it will snag a toenail. I know this last term from personal experience. That pretty much describes my quilting!

If you know of a traditional quilting activity in which others might be interested or a quilter who merits profiling, please send your ideas to pubs@quilts.com. Be sure to include your name, e-mail address, and phone number so that we may contact you..


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Archived blogs:

Column 149: Rosie’s Redwork
Column 148: The Quilt of Belonging
Column 147: Kanthas—The Quilts of Bangladesh
Column 146: Patterns
Column 145: Suzy on Carolyn Mazloomi's Groundbreaking Quilt Exhibit
Column 144: Texas Community Marks Juneteenth Sesquicentennial with History Quilts
Column 143: Maya Embroidered Patchwork
Column 142: Huipil Patchwork Quilts
Column 141: Tom Korn’s Military Medal Quilts
Column 140: The Return of Double Knits!
Column 139: Passage Quilts
Column 138: Home of the Brave Quilts
Column 137: The Story of Fabric Yo-Yos
Column 136: Christmas in July
Column 135: Trifles
Column 134: Deaf Initiatives—Communicating Through Quilts
Column 133: My Betty Boop Quilt
Column 132: Maura Grace Ambrose
Column 131: All You Need Is Love
Column 130: Chicken Linens
Column 129: The Quilted Chuppah
Column 128: Patchwork Around the World: Yoruba Dance Costumes
Column 127: The Bowers Co-Op Quilts
Column 126: Fon Appliqué and Haitian Voodoo Flags
Column 125: The Quilt Garden at The North Carolina Arboretum
Column 124: Harriet Powers and Handful’s Mauma
Column 123: Quilters de Mexico
Column 122: An Appliquéd Surprise
Column 121: Matisse’s Fabric Stash
Column 120: Soogan—The Cowboy’s Quilt
Column 119: The Ron Swanson Quilt
Column 118: HClarkdale, Georgia—A Thread of History
Column 117: How WWI Changed the Color of Quilts in the United States
Column 116: Wagga—The Bushman’s Quilt
Column 115: All in the Family
Column 114: The Alabama State Quilt
Column 113: Balloon Quilts of Albuquerque
Column 112: The Family That Quilts Together, Stays Together
Column 111: Two Rivers, Three Sisters
Column 110: Quilters Helping Quilters
Column 109: Community Cookbooks and Fundraiser Quilts—Parallel Histories
Column 108: Quilting to Freedom
Column 107: National Quilting Day
Column 106: The Airing of the Quilts
Column 105: A Call for a National Juneteenth Commemorative Quilt
Column 104: Dominoes
Column 103: 1936 Texas Centennial Bluebonnet Quilt
Column 102: Helen Blackstone, A Texas Quilter
Column 101: Montana CattleWomen Anniversary Brand Quilt
Column 100: 100th Suzy's Fancy Column!
Column 99: Montana Stockgrowers Anniversary Brand Quilt
Column 98: The Tobacco Sack Connection
Column 97: Meet the Sisters Who Are State Fair Quilting Queens
Column 96: The connection between fairs and quilts.
Column 95: Her Mother Pieced Quilts
Column 94: Rebecca Barker’s Quiltscapes
Column 93: The Thread and Thimble Club Mystery

See other archived columns here


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