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Column #42

Shoo Fly Pattern—Plant, Pie, or Pest?

Traditional quilt pattern names are fascinating. Changeable, frequently charming, and sometimes bewildering, they can be as colorful as the quilts they identify. The origins of those quilt pattern names are equally interesting.

I recently read about a pretty plant called Shoo Fly (Nicandra physalodes), also known as “Apple of Peru.” The plant is reported to be highly poisonous, and its juices apparently can be used to produce a natural fly deterrent, which is how it got the common name of Shoo Fly. I wondered whether there might be any association with the quilt pattern called Shoo Fly, and decided to do a little research. It didn’t take long to find the Quilting in America website, which says that, sure enough, this plant is the basis for the quilt pattern of the same name.

The Shoo Fly pattern is a nine-patch variation and it can look quite different depending upon the way contrasting fabrics are set in the block. When fabrics are set a certain way, it is not difficult to see the similarity between the pattern and the flower for which it is named.




Shoo Fly variation

I had always supposed that the pattern name came from Shoo Fly Pie, a molasses-based concoction of Pennsylvania Dutch origin. The Quilting in America website also makes this association. The most common explanation for how the pie got its name was that in earlier times, it used to be baked in an outdoor oven and was allowed to cool outside as well. Flies were attracted to the molasses in the pie, thus resulting in the command, “Shoo, fly!”

Shoo Fly is a relatively old quilt pattern. One source dates it to the mid-1800s, while Barbara Brackman’s Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns lists one variation as having been published in 1897 by the Ladies Art Company. The song, “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me” was first published in 1869. According to Wikipedia, “The song remained popular over the decades, and was commonly sung by soldiers during the Spanish-American War of 1898, when flies…were a serious enemy.” Although the song was well known during the same time period as the origin of the quilt pattern, I could find no documented connection between the two.

In railroad slang, a “shoo fly” refers to a railroad detour that occurs when a track is built around some obstacle. By extension, the term also means to avoid passing through a town if the police are hostile.

Another definition of the term “shoo fly” is a child’s rocker built in the shape of an animal. One source I found associated the quilt pattern with this meaning.

As is the case with many pattern names, clearly there is some disagreement about the Shoo Fly’s origins. To my mind, that only adds to its charm. So take your pick, and while you’re deciding, why not treat yourself to a slice of Shoo Fly Pie?

Shoo Fly Pie

  • 1 c. flour
  • 2/3 c. brown sugar

  • ½ tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 tbsp. shortening
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 3/4 c. hot water
  • 1 c. molasses
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 9" unbaked pie shell

Combine flour, cinnamon, and brown sugar. Cut shortening into flour mixture. Mix until crumbly. Reserve 1/2 c. crumbs. Dissolve baking soda in hot (but not boiling) water. In a small bowl, combine molasses, egg, and baking soda water and beat well. Pour into unbaked pie shell. Sprinkle with reserved crumbs. Bake at 375 degrees for 35 minutes.

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Archived blogs:

Column 144: Texas Community Marks Juneteenth Sesquicentennial with History Quilts
Column 143: Maya Embroidered Patchwork
Column 142: Huipil Patchwork Quilts
Column 141: Tom Korn’s Military Medal Quilts
Column 140: The Return of Double Knits!
Column 139: Passage Quilts
Column 138: Home of the Brave Quilts
Column 137: The Story of Fabric Yo-Yos
Column 136: Christmas in July
Column 135: Trifles
Column 134: Deaf Initiatives—Communicating Through Quilts
Column 133: My Betty Boop Quilt
Column 132: Maura Grace Ambrose
Column 131: All You Need Is Love
Column 130: Chicken Linens
Column 129: The Quilted Chuppah
Column 128: Patchwork Around the World: Yoruba Dance Costumes
Column 127: The Bowers Co-Op Quilts
Column 126: Fon Appliqué and Haitian Voodoo Flags
Column 125: The Quilt Garden at The North Carolina Arboretum
Column 124: Harriet Powers and Handful’s Mauma
Column 123: Quilters de Mexico
Column 122: An Appliquéd Surprise
Column 121: Matisse’s Fabric Stash
Column 120: Soogan—The Cowboy’s Quilt
Column 119: The Ron Swanson Quilt
Column 118: HClarkdale, Georgia—A Thread of History
Column 117: How WWI Changed the Color of Quilts in the United States
Column 116: Wagga—The Bushman’s Quilt
Column 115: All in the Family
Column 114: The Alabama State Quilt
Column 113: Balloon Quilts of Albuquerque
Column 112: The Family That Quilts Together, Stays Together
Column 111: Two Rivers, Three Sisters
Column 110: Quilters Helping Quilters
Column 109: Community Cookbooks and Fundraiser Quilts—Parallel Histories
Column 108: Quilting to Freedom
Column 107: National Quilting Day
Column 106: The Airing of the Quilts
Column 105: A Call for a National Juneteenth Commemorative Quilt
Column 104: Dominoes
Column 103: 1936 Texas Centennial Bluebonnet Quilt
Column 102: Helen Blackstone, A Texas Quilter
Column 101: Montana CattleWomen Anniversary Brand Quilt
Column 100: 100th Suzy's Fancy Column!
Column 99: Montana Stockgrowers Anniversary Brand Quilt
Column 98: The Tobacco Sack Connection
Column 97: Meet the Sisters Who Are State Fair Quilting Queens
Column 96: The connection between fairs and quilts.
Column 95: Her Mother Pieced Quilts
Column 94: Rebecca Barker’s Quiltscapes
Column 93: The Thread and Thimble Club Mystery

See other archived columns here