Rooster Tails and Toenail Catchers
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 email@example.com. Be sure to include your name, e-mail address, and phone number so that we may contact you.
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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
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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
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Column 102: Helen Blackstone, A Texas Quilter
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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
Column 92: The Ballerina Quilter
Column 91: Grandmother's Flower Garden Comes Alive at Texas Quilt Museum
Column 90: Leitmotif for a Lifelong Love Affair
Column 89: Quilting in The Bahamas
Column 88: Joan of Arc: A Quilter's Inspiration
Column 87: Home Demonstration Clubs and Quilting
Column 86: Linzi Upton and the Quilted Yurt
Column 85: A Bounty of Quilts
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Column 83: Quilts and the Women’s Liberation Movement
Column 82: Replicating the Past: Reproduction Fabrics for Today’s Quilts
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Column 75: The Modern Quilt Guild—Cyberculture Quilting Ramps Up
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Column 72: Author: Terri Thayer
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Column 70: New Mexico Centennial Quilt
Column 69: Scrub Quilts
Column 68: “Think Pink” Quilt Raises Funds for Rare Cancer Research
Column 67: Righting Old Wrongs.
Column 66: 100 Years, 100 Quilts - More on the Arizona Centennial.
Column 65: Arizona Centennial Quilt Project
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Column 60: The Camo Quilt Project.
Column 59: Thread Wit
Column 58: Ralli Quilts
Column 57: Preschool Quilters
Column 56: The Story Quilt
Column 55: Red and Green Quilts
Column 54: On the Trail
Column 53: Quilt Trail Gathering
Column 52: True Confessions: First Quilt
Column 51: Quilted Pages
Column 50: Doll Quilts
Column 49: More Than a Quilt Shop
Column 48: Las Colchas of the Texas-Mexico Border
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Column 46: A Different Way of Seeing
Column 45: Sampling
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