Hen and Chicks
Photo by Rick Bennett. Taken to publicize a chicken coop tour in Raleigh, North Carolina that raised $5000 and 2000 pounds of non-perishable food for Urban Ministries, which provides medical care and food for people in need. For more information, see
Hen 'n Chicks block. Photo by Wisconsin quilter Jen Buettner.
Photo by Kelly MacDonald.
Not long ago, I wrote about the Shoo Fly quilt pattern, having been inspired by the Shoo Fly plant. I was recently given a start of a different plant, a succulent called Hen and Chicks (Sempervivum tectorum), and that got me thinking about quilt patterns of the same (or similar) name.
Barbara Brackman’s Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns lists several patterns that fall into this category, and shows sources for most of them dating from the 1930s (although one comes from an 1896 Ladies Art Company catalogue) Hen and Chicks, Hen ‘n Chicks, Hen and Chickens, Hens and Chickens, or The Hen and Her Chicks—all refer to quilt block patterns that feature a central geometric shape, usually a square, surrounded by smaller shapes, often triangles.
My Hen and Chicks plant also features a central cluster of rosettes (the “hen”) surrounded by smaller rosettes (the “chicks”). Descriptions of the Hen and Chicks plant say that European peasants planted the succulent on the thatched roofs of their homes in order to create a natural firebreak. Since Hen and Chicks retains water in its leaves, it would catch fire less quickly than the dried thatch.
If you’ve ever seen a mother hen surrounded by her baby chicks, you know that it is an easy visual leap to see where both the plant and the quilt pattern got their names. The large chicken in the middle of her brood of little ones is a memorable sight. Being a “chickenista” with a small backyard flock of my own, I can certainly understand how chickens’ appearance and their funny, endearing antics might give rise to all sorts of creative thought.
Of course, as is true with most traditional quilt patterns, the inspiration for a name may vary from place to place and from time to time. Barbara Brackman quotes Florence Peto as saying, “It is not wise to be didactic about the nomenclature of quilt patterns.” In one instance, Brackman notes that a pattern named Hen and Chicks is also called Shoo Fly.
Our quilting forebears took their cues from their surroundings and their everyday lives. Since many of them lived in a rural environment, it is hardly surprising that something so common and familiar as poultry would make its way into their artistic expressions.
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