Charm square is the general term used to describe a 5-inch square of fabric. These days, charm squares are often sold as precut squares cut from a coordinating collection, often with more than one square of each print in the pack.
However, that hasn’t always been the case. Charm quilts have been around since the 1880s, but until recent decades the “charm” referred to the fact that each small, uniform patch was of a different fabric.
Charm quilts are often made using just a single pattern patch. One-patch designs are ideal for charm quilts because they fit together to form overall designs that are almost unlimited in their possibilities for color variations. With every patch a different color and print, the arrangements of lights and darks and the interplay of different hues provide much creative pleasure for the quiltmaker. Since there are no blocks as such and no sashes, patches can be added on until the quilt is any size desired—or until one has completely depleted the number of different fabrics collected.
(from Quilters Newsletter Magazine, January 1988, page 34)
Victorian women liked to collect and trade charms of different sorts, such as buttons, and one-patch charm quilts became quite trendy in the late 1800s. Fabric charms could come in a variety of dimensions. In a 1902 letter to the requests column of The American Woman Magazine, a Miss Jennie Miller of Illinois wrote: “I shall be glad to receive from every reader a piece of calico, any color, 6 x 4 inches, for my charm quilt, and will return the favor in any way I can.”
Charm quilts experienced another wave of popularity from the 1920s to the mid-1930s but were modified to suit modern tastes; a few quilters expressed a preference for using white patches to unify blocks, in contrast to the quilts “our grandmothers endeavored to make.” Soon, charm quilts were basically indistinguishable from other scrap quilts of the era.
In the 1980s, noted quilt historian Cuesta Benberry wrote articles about historic and contemporary charm quilts for Quilters Newsletter Magazine. The first article published in the March 1980 issue included an introduction that described charm quilts as “a little-known Victorian quilt tradition.” By the time she wrote about the subject again for the January and February 1988 issues, charm quilts were experiencing a new wave of popularity that made use of contemporary fabrics and techniques.
Even by the late 1980s, charm quilts were still mostly distinguished by a uniformity in size and variety in print of the patches, not by a standard 5-inch measurement of the patches used to make the quilt.
Nowadays, the emphasis is on starting with a set of 5-inch squares and then figuring out what to do with them. Ideas abound, from easy, Victorian-style one-patch designs to more complex patterns, making a charm square quilt something any quilter can make.
Our own Carolyn Beam loves charm squares and has started a regular blog series for Quiltmaker’s Quilty Pleasures blog she’s calling “Charmed, I’m Sure.” Just last week, Carolyn blogged about how to host a charm square swap to get the greatest variety possible; check it out here. If you’re a fan of charm square quilts, be sure to check the Quilty Pleasures blog regularly to read more about Carolyn’s tips and designs for inspiration.
Baby quilts are a fantastic use of charm squares and are great for beginning quilters. For an easy charm square baby quilt, check out the Charms for Baby pattern demonstrated by Colleen Tauke for the “Quilting Quickly” series.
In the “My First Quilt” series, Sara Gallegos demonstrated a couple different variations of a cute–and fast!–baby quilt using a charm pack. Click here to learn more about the free “My First Quilt” series available on QNNtv.com.
Off My Back is a twin-bed quilt pattern made with coordinating charm squares and additional yardage.
Stringing Beads is another twin-bed pattern that combines a scrappy approach with modern appeal. (And there’s that white sashing that charm quilters of the 1930s liked so much!)
For a more intricate design using charm squares, check out Nancy Mahoney’s medallion-style Rainbow Mosaic pattern, which she demonstrated on an episode of “Fons & Porter’s Love of Quilting.” I cannot say enough about Nancy – she’s a fabulous designer, a wonderful teacher and just super nice, too. The pattern is available here and the full episode is included in the DVD set of “Love of Quilting’s” 2900 series.
So those are just a few ideas of what to do with your charm squares. No matter what choice you make — coordinated precut package vs. trading with friends, one-patch design or cut into smaller patches – you’re sure to make something unique, special and, yes, charming.