Design Dynamics of Log Cabin Quilts

Design Dynamics of Log Cabin Quilts

Design Dynamics of Log Cabin Quilts

Log Cabin quilt blocks are visually dynamic for a very simple reason: CONTRAST. In the three Log Cabin block designs, contrasting light and dark areas fall on either side of diagonal lines. 

And when many blocks are set together in a quilt, these lines move, quiver, ripple, dart, or spin across the surfaces. They are Dynamic! Dynamite! 

The perennially popular Log Cabin quilts, whether made with Standard Log Cabin blocks, Courthouse Steps, or Pineapple variation blocks, resonates for makers and collectors even today. At the IQM, Log Cabin quilts pop up in most of the museum’s major collections, including the Jonathan Holstein Collection, the Ardis and Robert James Collection, and the Byron and Sara Rhodes Dillow Collection, from which the quilts for this exhibition were selected. 

Log Cabin quilts will likely remain popular to make and view for years to come because of their dynamic, timeless, and straightforward designs.

Featured Media

Featured Media
Featured Media

Log Cabin Settings

Log Cabin Settings
Log Cabin Settings

Log Cabin blocks start with a center square. The Courthouse Steps and Pineapple blocks diverge from the standard in how strips are added. In the standard Log Cabin block, strips spiral out from the center to the block edge. In the Courthouse Steps variation, strips step out from the center, top and bottom, side by side. In the Pineapple variation, strips radiate outward, first along the sides, then at the corners.

Part of the standard Log Cabin block’s great versatility is the many ways it can be arranged, or set, to create different designs. In this animation, you can see several settings: Barn Raising, Chevron, Straight Furrows and Streak of Lightning.

Log Cabin blocks start with a center square. The Courthouse Steps and Pineapple blocks diverge from the standard in how strips are added. In the standard Log Cabin block, strips spiral out from the center to the block edge. In the Courthouse Steps variation, strips step out from the center, top and bottom, side by side. In the Pineapple variation, strips radiate outward, first along the sides, then at the corners.

Log Cabin blocks start with a center square. The Courthouse Steps and Pineapple blocks diverge from the standard in how strips are added. In the standard Log Cabin block, strips spiral out from the center to the block edge. In the Courthouse Steps variation, strips step out from the center, top and bottom, side by side. In the Pineapple variation, strips radiate outward, first along the sides, then at the corners

Works in the Exhibition

Works in the Exhibition

Log Cabin, Chevron setting
Maker unknown
Probably made in Pennsylvania
Circa 1880-1900
IQM 2003.003.0184, Jonathan Holstein Collection

The Log Cabin, Chevron setting, is rare, but has its own dynamism. The setting can be imagined as a Barn Raising setting split in the middle, with the two halves swapped.

Log Cabin, Barn Raising setting
Maker unknown
Possibly made in Pennsylvania
Circa 1910-1920
IQM 2003.003.0175, Jonathan Holstein Collection

Standard Log Cabin blocks can be set in more ways than are shown in this exhibition. However, there are more Barn Raising setting quilts in the International Quilt Museum’s collections than any other setting. Either more makers preferred this setting or the collectors who donated their quilts to the IQM preferred them, or both

Log Cabin, Straight Furrows setting
Maker unknown
Possibly made in Pennsylvania
Circa 1890-1910
IQM 2003.003.0026, Jonathan Holstein Collection

Straightforward and bold, subtle and understated: That’s what this Log Cabin, Straight Furrows setting quilt is. Red and white, dark and light are starkly divided. The solid-colored fabrics vary almost imperceptibly, and the lines of hand quilting pull soft shadows into the valleys, creating  fine texture.

Log Cabin, Sunshine and Shadow setting
Maker unknown
Possibly made in New Jersey
Circa 1880-1900
IQM 2003.003.0254, Jonathan Holstein Collection

Some two-dimensional designs create the illusion of the third dimension, through varying the hue (color) and value (dark and light intensity) of fabrics used. For example, in this Log Cabin, Sunshine and Shadow setting, the maker’s arrangement of dark and medium shades of brown, red and pink fabrics fools the eye into thinking that each block is a shaded portal, receding from the surface.

Log Cabin, Barn Raising setting
Maker unknown
Circa 1890-1910
IQM 2003.003.0237, Jonathan Holstein Collection

The Barn Raising and Streak of Lighting settings of the standard Log Cabin block often introduce the design element called transparency. The dark lines and shapes formed by these settings appear as shadows cast across a square grid.

Log Cabin, Streak of Lightning setting
Maker unknown
Probably made in Hagerstown or Franklin County, Maryland, or Pennsylvania
Circa 1870-1890
IQM 1997.007.0825, Gift of Ardis & Robert James

The Barn Raising and Streak of Lighting settings of the standard Log Cabin block often introduce the design element called transparency. The dark lines and shapes formed by these settings appear as shadows cast across a square grid.

Log Cabin, Light and Dark setting
Maker unknown
Probably made in Pennsylvania
Circa 1890-1910
IQM 2003.003.0217, Jonathan Holstein Collection

Courthouse Steps blocks can be set only two ways, and the one most used is seen in the quilt at your right. The overall design resembles the Standard Log Cabin, Light and Dark setting.

Log Cabin, Courthouse Steps variation Maker unknown
Probably made in Pennsylvania
Circa 1870-1890
IQM 2003.003.0319, Jonathan Holstein Collection

Courthouse Steps blocks can be set only two ways, and the one most used is seen in the quilt at your right. The overall design resembles the Standard Log Cabin, Light and Dark setting.

Log Cabin, Pineapple variation
Maker unknown
Made in United States
Circa 1890-1910
IQM 2008.040.0186, Byron and Sara Rhodes Dillow Collection

The Pineapple variation is the most complex Log Cabin block. To construct the block, makers add angled “logs” at the corners of each round of strips. This results in saw-toothed lines that radiate from the center and divide the block into eight wedges.

This maker not only alternated light and dark values in the wedges, but also strengthened the lines by using the same fabric in each wedge.

Log Cabin, Pineapple variation
Maker Unknown
Made in the United States
Circa 1880-1900
IQM 2003.003.0242, Jonathan Holstein Collection

In a Log Cabin, Pineapple variation, individual blocks can be dif cult to identify because the overall design is so powerful.

What you see when looking at this quilt might change with concentrated viewing.

Works in the Exhibition
This exhibition was made possible through funding from the Nebraska Arts Council and the Nebraska Cultural Endowment. The Nebraska Arts Council, a state agency, has supported this exhibition through its matching grants program funded by the Nebraska Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Nebraska Cultural Endowment. Visit www.artscouncil.nebraska.gov for more information.
Event Date
Friday, March 7, 2014 to Saturday, November 29, 2014