(Grandmother Alexander on the farm)
The earliest known American-made hexagon quilt is dated 1807, and there is an English hexagon quilt dated even earlier. It's likely these quilts were made for decades before that since quilts from that era were not often dated and few of the quilts made that early have survived. Nineteenth Century hexagon quilts were known as mosaic quilts, honeycomb quilts, and six-sided patchwork. The design retained its popularity across the decades with the types of material used in its construction changing from chintz to silk to wool to calicoes, first in brown cottons, then grays, then pastels.
(above: Flower Garden quilt from my grandmother)
Godey's Ladies Book published the popular hexagon pattern in 1835. This is thought to be the first pieced quilt pattern published in America; however, the pattern had been very popular in England prior to that. The arrangement of the hexagons changed over the years. One-patch quilts were made of hexagon patches sewn together without any attempt at color arrangement. But these six-sided patches invited experimentation by women who wanted more color and pattern in their creations. Even the oldest tattered remnants of hexagon quilts show attempts at sorting and arranging colors. In time, more or less elaborate mosaic patterns resulted.
By the 20th century, hexagon quilts were usually made in the Grandmother's Flower Garden pattern. These contained a center hexagon surrounded by six colorful printed or solid hexagons with another row of 12 hexagons around that. The centers were sometimes yellow to represent the center of a flower. Between each flower was a row of solid-colored hexagons representing the background. A green background suggested a garden while white was thought to represent a picket fence.
During the 19th century, hexagon quilts were made using the English paper piecing method. With this method, a hexagon template had to be cut out of paper or light cardboard for each hexagon patch. If the quilt maker was very careful after she finished sewing them together, she might be able to reuse some of the hexagon templates. Other quilters left the templates in with the quilts giving us the opportunity to date those quilts from the pieces of newspaper left in them.
Mosaic paper piecing was done using other shapes as well, including triangles, diamonds and just about any shape that would fit together. These quilts are also called one-patch quilts since there was only one shape used throughout the quilt. Once the templates are prepared, a piece of fabric had to be cut so that there was about ¼ inch showing all around the template. The extending fabric was then folded over the template and basted down. Finally, each of the hexagon pieces was whip-stitched together from the back side. The resulting stitches were smaller and tighter than a quilt made with running stitches. The hexagons used in the 19th Century were usually smaller than those used for later Grandmother's Flower Garden quilts. Some of them were made up of hexagons as small as one inch or even a half-inch across.
(photo courtesy Melody Rose)
During the first decades of the 20th Century, most quilt makers aspired to complete at least one Grandmother's Flower Garden quilt. These quilts may have been made up of slightly larger hexagons and were more often sewn together with a running stitch. Finishing one was still a major accomplishment. Add to that the fact that the binding often followed the lines of the hexagon resulting in interesting but more difficult bindings. Grandmother's Flower Garden quilts were often quilted about ¼ inch on each side of the seam lines. The quilting was usually all done with white or off-white thread. Although using hexagons and other mosaics in quilts today is uncommon, some quilt artists are still making mosaic quilts using traditional English paper piecing. The results can be truly stunning.
There's a friendly, talented group of quilters and seamstresses here on Dave's Garden. You can find their informative forum here.
(credits: http://www.womenfolk.com/quilt_pattern_history/mosaic.htm; Judy Anne Breneman; http://www.patternsfromhistory.com/colonial_revival/flower_garden.htm; http://lequilts.blogspot.com/2011/04/grandmothers-flower-garden-quilt-as-you.html)