IMperfectionism: the humility block in quilting

Recently, when taking my newly quilted table runner to my quilting group, I mentioned to a few of the ladies what I had been working on and then brought up the subject of my imperfect block.  Comments? Yes, and two of note were:

“What mistake? I can’t see it?  (I point it out)  OH…  just leave it in.”

and

“Oh, that will be your ‘humility block.’  Just leave it!”  Whereupon she proceeded to tell me about how the Amish always leave in an imperfect block in their quilts because it shows their humility to God.

Well, I went looking for the Humility Block and guess what?  It just isn’t true.  As near as can be found, the concept began in about 1948.  You have to wonder why people make things up like that.  😉

So now, if you go to your quilters guild and ask, they may well tell you the myth, and in great detail, but you will know the truth of it.  Want to know more about this charming, but entirely untrue quilter’s tale?  Then go to Hart Heritage Quilts  (scroll down a ways on this site)  or to Cats Quilt Art to read in more detail.

So, what did I ultimately decide to do?  After reading about how many vintage and antique quilts there are out there with a high value attached to them, and that the imperfections are considered ‘quirks’ of the maker… well, I decided to let it go.  I’ve  bound it, its done, and I’m happy.

The block is called *“Railroad.”  The table runner is machine pieced and quilted, however the binding is hand sewn!

Though I must confess I do sort of like the myth behind the Humility Block.  Old or new to the quilting tradition, the quirky block in even the oldest of quilts stands the test of time, and I don’t care when the myth was begun.   I like it.

~*~

~*~
So what’s next?
NOTE:  I find that I have called my four patch block the “Underground RR,” and it is actually simply called “Railroad.”  I found the pattern on the Civil War Quilts website, in which Barbara Brackman stated that, “Railroad can symbolize the end of the Underground Railroad, a change in the strategy of escape from slavery.” (Emphasis mine)  The fact that I loved the block and purchased the fabric for it almost a year ago, but was afraid to cut it out for fear of ruining it (!!!) had apparently combined her comment, and the quilts actual name, in my mind between then and now.  So, thank you to Tracy Byers for, indirectly, pointing out my mistake!  😉
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31 thoughts on “IMperfectionism: the humility block in quilting

  1. Cindy Kilpatrick says:

    True or not, it is wise. I have some of my grandmother’s pinch and coil pottery and what I truly love about it is its imperfections. I can see the imprints of her fingertips. I know that she made them for the love of the process, the feel of the clay in her hands. They are beautiful in their humility. I suppose if you want to sell them commercially then someone might feel slighted if they are not perfect, but if they are wise they will see that the imperfections prove that they are hand- and lovingly crafted.

    • pixilated2 says:

      Cindy, how wonderful that you have your grandmothers pottery! I dabbled in pottery in my 20s in HS and College. It was very challenging. Fun, but not so predictable as fabric. Perhaps someday you will share them on your blog? 🙂

  2. shoreacres says:

    Well, no matter what the books say, my grandmother always added a block like that to her quilts, and she sure was going at it before 1948! Granted, I’m not sure she called it a humility block, but she and her friends always said that it was important not to strive for perfection, lest it lead to pridefulness. 😉

    There are variations on the theme of intentional IMperfection. During the Persian Empire, imperfections were woven into tapestries to acknowledge that only God is capable of perfection. And, the Navajo weave imperfections into their blankets and such to allow the spirits to go in and out. Or so I’ve been told.

    In any event, Leonard Cohen got it right when he wrote “Anthem”. As the words go, “there is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in”.

    • pixilated2 says:

      Linda, you always find the most interesting information! Thank you for sharing, as certainly helps in understanding the origins of the Amish humility block. I love that your grandmother did this too!
      ~ L

  3. magsx2 says:

    Hi,
    That really is a beautiful table runner, I do love the way you have done it, I don’t know anything about quilts but I the pattern you used it looks great.

  4. Anke says:

    I think it’s funny how these myth’s get started and become “truth” after a while. Reminds me of the “German Christmas pickle”. Everybody in the US seems to know about it, yet nobody in Germany I asked had ever heard about it and I asked a lot of people from all over Germany.
    Your table runner is gorgeous, you do beautiful work Lynda!

    • pixilated2 says:

      Thank you Tom. The sun just wasn’t cooperating that morning, and it was early so the rays were quite oblique. Yet, the light still managed to burn out the flower print and green blocks. They all look anemic. And hey, I just read your latest post, you do alright for yourself, I say! 🙂

  5. littlesundog says:

    I love the table runner! It’s beautiful. I have never heard of humility blocks but then I came from a family of perfectionists!! I like the idea of owning the imperfections and just going with them! I love life a lot more not having to walk such a fine line. I love all my humility blocks.

    • pixilated2 says:

      I hail from a similar line of perfectionists. It was hard to let this go and just finish the project with that turned block, but having let it go it will perhaps make my eye more keen for next time. 🙂 And YES, I love my life’s Humility Blocks too! Thank you Lori! ~ L

  6. Tracy Byers says:

    This isn’t the only myth in quilting that has gained a foothold…the whole Underground Railroad quilt thing is a myth as well! It was started by an antique dealer who was having trouble “moving” some of her older quilts. Many of the blocks attributed to the myth didn’t “exist” until after the Civil War.
    I think we just want to believe in the magic of the quilt!!

    • pixilated2 says:

      Tracy, this may be so, thank you! I have also seen this pattern called “Jacob’s Ladder” and several other names. In going to Maggie Malone’s 5,500 Quilt Block Designs, I see that the the actual “URR” block is a nine patch, whereas mine is a four patch. Thank you for making me go back to do a bit more research on this block because I have actually found that Barbara Brackman called it the “Railroad Block” and talks about how it can symbolize the Underground Railroad, not that it does. You can read more about this block from her, here: http://civilwarquilts.blogspot.com/2011/05/21-underground-railroad.html I chose this pattern from http://www.CivilWarQuilts.com , and no matter it’s name, it goes together nicely (mostly) for a beginner like me.

      And yes, by all means, let’s hear it for the magic of a quilt!
      ~ L

  7. Ria says:

    I heard the concept of the humility block years ago (and other variations, such as in rug-making and knitting and just about every other craft or art out there), and while I know it’s bunk, I also really like it. It helps me to remember that not everything can be perfect, and that I have to learn to accept things as they are sometimes, and that even the imperfect can be perfection in its own right. The myth itself may be false, but the lesson and the message have meaning to me.

    Though I have to admit, I haven’t ever made something like that intentionally, to keep myself humble. It’s always an afterthought! 🙂

    • pixilated2 says:

      Sawsan, I absolutely agree! I don’t think that most of us realize that it is the little imperfections and quirks that make each of us interesting, and as you say, “Special and different.”

      I am still hearing pro and con on this story, but I agree, it is humanizing. I can smile each time I look at that sideways block now. 😉
      ~ L

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