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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to include your name, e-mail address, and phone number so that we may contact you.
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