String-piecing, past and present

When Aristotle said “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” he likely wasn’t talking about string-piecing. But he could have been.

String-piecing offers an opportunity to transform bits of old and new fabrics (even ugly fabrics) to create a beautiful new quilt. (Carrie announced Moda’s String-along last week. If you missed that post, check here. There is loads of how-to advice, as well as information about joining in.)

A spider web string-pieced quilt from the collection of collector Nancy Ray of Texas. The quilt at the top is also from her extensive collection.

Today we think of all the design opportunities that string-piecing affords, but in the past string-pieced quilts were often utilitarian and created out of a sense of frugality. If there was ever a technique that grew from the “waste-not, want-not” mindset, it’s string-piecing. 

Pearl inspects my string-pieced quilt

The origins of those fabric “strings” became clear to me recently while sorting through my mother’s sewing room. My mom was a talented garment maker who carefully rolled up and saved scraps from the clothing she stitched. As I inspected each bundle I realized that scraps left over from garment-making are often too long and narrow for use in a traditional quilt block. But that didn’t mean they would be thrown away. String-piecing is a perfect example of the inventiveness of women, who after stitching clothing for their family members used the leftover bits to keep them warm and cozy.

A string-pieced quilt from the collection of Nancy Ray

Because the strips are often narrow, it works best to piece them on a foundation and those foundations may provide a hint as to when and where a vintage quilt top was constructed. Quilt tops pieced using phone books or old newspapers may contain dates or other identifying information.

This quilt was foundation-pieced on pages from catalogs and newspapers

Plain feed sacks or those with logos on them were also used as a foundation for string-piecing. If you’re a collector of feed sack quilts, it’s a special bonus to find a quilt top with the logos still visible on the back, and sometimes the logo includes the location of a mill where the bag’s contents were produced. 

The back of a string quilt foundation pieced on sugar sacks

While string piecing is an old technique, it’s definitely appreciated by modern quilters, too. We’ve become aware that recycling and not wasting is important for our environment, and that’s essentially what string-piecing amounts to. Piecing with selvedges is one form of string piecing that’s been popular in the last few years.

Linda Hungerford wore this string-pieced selvedge skirt to QuiltCon in 2015.

And just like in the past, quilters are ever-inventive in the ways they choose to use up every last bit. We can’t wait to see what you come up with during Moda’s string-along!

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20 thoughts on “String-piecing, past and present

    1. I wish they were mine! Only one (with the dog on it) is—three belong to Nancy Ray, a string-piecing collector and expert from Texas.

  1. I saw a string quilt at a quilt retreat and fell in love. The organizer of the retreat told me how the quilter made the block and gave me the dimensions but left out a key part of the instructions so my block isn’t “perfect”. Of course, this really doesn’t matter because rather than it being a mistake, it’s now a design opportunity and I will have a different but unique design. It’s a great use of those small fabrics that I can’t bear to throw away.

  2. Pearl looks lovely on your gorgeous string quilt! I have a UFO string with all the strings pulled and sorted (I have a plan of blocks lighter, medium and darker but all strings are pastels). The foundation is dress making tissue. I have made several blocks and like it very much. The string-along will surely help me get this one done. Love your blog! Have a great day!

  3. Very interesting article. I never realized string quilts could be done with triangles and other shapes. I thought it could only be long narrow strips.

  4. Delightful post! I really enjoy looking at string quilts and string piecing. I’ve already decided on the four quilts I’ll be string piecing from Bonnie K. Hunter’s new book String Frenzy; Geese on a String, Sandcastles, Dawn’s Early Light, and Emerald City. Hugs, Allison C Bayer, Plano, Texas

  5. I think I am a wee bit ahead of you today! Finished a 72×92″ top of Roman Coin stripes with a denim-look print in between and on the borders.

  6. Was wondering if there is a pattern out there for Nancy ray’s spider web string pieced quilt. Jennifer DeWind @sheslikethedewindthrumytree

    1. Her quilts are all vintage/antique, so there isn’t a pattern for this specific quilt. But perhaps a bit of Googling will turn up a similar one that you like.

  7. I’ve been saving selveges for awhile to make something with them: looks like I’ll be joining the string-along!! And I grew up right across the bridge from where that C&H sugar factory was!

  8. Actually, I while I collect old string quilts, I make them too. The third quilt shown is one of mine–one I made, I mean. Unfortunately the color in the picture is poor; it looks dull, but in “person” it’s vibrant. It’s wonderful to see such interest in string quilts; I have loved them since the first one I saw.
    nancy.ray22@twc.com

    1. Thank you for clarifying, Nancy! The color on all the quilts is a little less vibrant than in person because I took them in an indoor setting, at your talk for the Lone Star Quilt Study Group. Your quilts are so inspiring!

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