Adaptable Log Cabin Quilts: Pattern Meets All Needs & Suits All Notions

Vintage Log Cabin Quilts

Early Log Cabin quilts

The versatility of the Log Cabin pattern may have produced more quilts than any other block design. Its straightforward piecing is not as challenging as more intricate designs, yet the results can be quite impressive.

“Off Center Log Cabin Barn Raising” • Circa 1875, cotton • 86" x 72" • These blocks have a tiny red square in the center and many narrow rectangles. The variety of prints and colors creates a heightened visual experience | Photos by Robert L. Guaraldi

“Off Center Log Cabin Barn Raising” • Circa 1875, cotton • 86″ x 72″ • These blocks have a tiny red square in the center and many narrow rectangles. The variety of prints and colors creates a heightened visual experience | Photos by Robert L. Guaraldi

The earliest known Log Cabin quilts date to the mid- to late-1860s. That does not mean they didn’t exist before then, but only that there are none in evidence today.

Pieced Log Cabin blocks are often found with a square in the center, with varying lengths of rectangles added until the desirable size of the block was achieved. I have seen other variations where the square is divided in half, in fourths, or has triangles pieced in each corner, creating a center square on point.

This center square is usually red, which according to quilting folk tales symbolizes the hearth of the home. Rectangles that concentrically surround it are the logs; thus the name of the pattern. The size of the center square determines the size of the rectangles and the number of rectangles determines the size of the block. Log Cabin blocks are traditionally pieced with a diagonal division of light and dark fabrics. This allows the blocks to have contrast and versatility. By varying the positioning of the blocks, an infinite variety of patterns can be created.

“Log Cabin Basket Weave” • Lebanon, Pennsylvania, 1875 • In this pattern, only the center square and four rectangles are pieced. The woven pattern was created when the blocks were placed in a repetitious diagonal arrangement

“Log Cabin Basket Weave” • Lebanon, Pennsylvania, 1875 • In this pattern, only the center square and four rectangles are pieced. The woven pattern was created when the blocks were placed in a repetitious diagonal arrangement

The Log Cabin pattern offers quilters countless variations, but also provides an opportunity to use narrow scraps of cloth that accumulate when sewing other projects. The technique varies from foundation piecing to traditional patchwork with the same results.

“Log Cabin Multiple Barn Raisings” • circa 1890, wool • 79" x 79" • In this quilt, a larger red center square with the repeat of red one step away presents and interesting secondary design element. The complexity of this arrangement adds a degree of difficulty and also rarity to this example

“Log Cabin Multiple Barn Raisings” • circa 1890, wool • 79″ x 79″ • In this quilt, a larger red center square with the repeat of red one step away presents and interesting secondary design element. The complexity of this arrangement adds a degree of difficulty and also rarity to this example

Tied and quilted Log Cabin pieces

Foundation-pieced Log Cabins are often tied rather than quilted because of the difficulty of quilting through the extra bulk of the foundation fabric. Ties are found both knotted front-to-back and back-to-front, showcased as part of the visual appeal of the quilt. Like the majority of nineteenth-century quilts, pieced Log Cabin quilts are usually quilted. The closely set seam allowances commonly restrict hand quilting to following the seams.

As the Log Cabin pattern easily lent itself to decorative household items, you will even find objects as small as potholders sewn in this style. Many small examples have survived because they were never intended for everyday use, but cherished for their beauty.

“Log Cabin Windmill Blades” • Ohio, circa 1880, wool • 78" x 86" • This quilt is interesting because of its many complex features. The red center squares have a tiny triangle pieced in each corner. Each center is then framed with a complementary blue and orange frame. The large red blocks are framed with green, and light contrasting areas within each block further enhance the visual experience. The multiple borders are consistent with complex details throughout the quilt

“Log Cabin Windmill Blades” • Ohio, circa 1880, wool • 78″ x 86″ • This quilt is interesting because of its many complex features. The red center squares have a tiny triangle pieced in each corner. Each center is then framed with a complementary blue and orange frame. The large red blocks are framed with green, and light contrasting areas within each block further enhance the visual experience. The multiple borders are consistent with complex details throughout the quilt

Rise of the Log Cabin

The Victorian period produced a cross-section of wealth that enabled women to spend time decorating their homes. The Log Cabin pattern was very popular, providing a variety of configurations that also became feats of accomplishment, with tiny sewn pieces and multiple blocks arranged in complex arrangements. The fashion became competitive, to see who could make the most intricate design with the smallest components. These pieces were then used for show, rather than practical objects.

Gerald E. Roy holding a dog

Gerald E. Roy

Paul Pilgrim and I, as collectors, became fascinated with the design. The fun of looking at and comparing the many variations of the pattern led to a collection. We began collecting not only traditional Log Cabins with red centers, but were challenged to find variations. Log Cabins have tremendous appeal, and you can’t have just one!


Collector and certified quilt appraiser Gerald E. Roy is also a quilter, painter, and antique dealer.

Try making your own Log Cabin quilt!

Interested in learning the basics of Log Cabin quilts? Check on this course with Kate Colleran to get started. Mastered the basics? Try this course for more variations. Check out this adorable FREE pattern for a Log Cabin baby quilt!

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