“Tumbling Blocks” is one of the most recognizable quilt patterns. As popular today as it was from the mid to late 1800s, it is a requisite pattern for any quilt collection. The roots of the pattern date back far longer than its use for American quilts. Tumbling Blocks has a long history in the grammar of ornament, dating back as far as ancient Greece, when the pattern appeared as a mosaic floor design. It may have been introduced into quiltmaking in the 1850s; Godey’s Lady’s Book published the pattern in an 1851 issue. Also known as cubework, the stunningly optical results of floating, stacked, and overall cubic arrangements are achieved through the distribution of color and light and dark pieces.” [1] The pattern is sometimes known as “Baby’s Blocks.”

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum has in its collection a fragment of a Tumbling Blocks patchwork. Made entirely of silk fabrics, the piece is primarily made up of gaily colored stripes, plaids and a few small floral patterns. The dynamic textile includes two rows of predominately black silk. The sharp contrast of the black with the lively colors that make up the majority of the piece is what gives such a strong optical quality to this and many other Tumbling Block quilts. This example from the collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History gives a very good representation of how an entire quilt following the design of Cooper Hewitt’s fragment might have looked.

Jonathan Holstein, collector and curator, included Tumbling Blocks and Baby’s Blocks quilts in the groundbreaking 1971 “Abstract Design in American Quilts” show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. All of the quilts included in the show were chosen for the graphic, abstract quality that their patterns gave. In Holstein’s 1972 book The Pieced Quilt: An American Design Tradition, he asserted that the pattern “which originated in the last half of the nineteenth century is similar to the optical experiments of some contemporary painters.”

Cooper Hewitt’s only Tumbling Block pattern was donated by sisters Dorothy Lynde Wadhams Wright (1902-1995) and Elizabeth A. Wadhams (1903-1975), natives of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The donation was made in 1975, just a few months before Elizabeth Wadhams died.

Jeffery McCullough is a recent graduate of the Masters Program in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies offered by Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in conjunction with Parsons School of Design at The New School.

[1] Hollander, Stacy C. “Tumbling Blocks Quilt,” exhibition label for alt_quilts: Sabrina Gschwandtner, Luke Haynes, Stephen Sollins. Stacy C. Hollander, curator. New York: American Folk Art Museum, 2013.

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