by Suzanne Labry
The Story of Fabric Yo-Yos
The ruched fabric rosette known as a yo-yo in North America and a Suffolk Puff in the British Isles and elsewhere is a curious little thing.
A yo-yo is produced by forming a fold on the edge of a fabric circle with a running stitch, and then pulling the thread to form a gathered round. It can then be combined with others to produce an “open-weave” quilt top, or used singly as an embellishment for three-dimensional appliqué.
It is one of those novelty techniques that’although closely associated with quilts—does not of itself produce a true quilt. Many yo-yo “quilts” have no batting or backing, and are more like coverlets or throws. Even those that are attached to a backing are usually tied rather than quilted. Nevertheless, quilters love yo-yos.
Most commonly associated with the 1930s and ‘40s, yo-yo quilts of that era frequently mimic hexagon mosaic patterns popular at the time, such as Grandmother’s Flower Garden. Yo-yos were also used to create remarkable pictorial quilts, such as Texas Under Six Flags created by Leila Chaney in 1936 (pictured), which features over 10,000 silk yo-yos of varying sizes.
Others used yo-yos in the same way that Pointillist artists used paint: as small dots of color arranged in patterns to create an overall image.
But how did yo-yos get that name in North America, and why were yo-yo quilts so popular during the Depression Era? Of course, they are a good way to use up small bits of fabric, which would have appealed to thrifty quilters who needed to make do with what they had.
Yo-yos also are simple to make and portable—other handy qualities. An interesting theory relating to their name has to do with the round wooden toy with a string wrapped around the center axis called a yo-yo that also enjoyed great popularity during the same time period.
No one really knows who invented the yo-yo, but such toys have been used in the Philippines for centuries. And the term “yo-yo” is a derivative of the Filipino word for “come-come” or “return.” The Spanish-American War (and the resultant Philippine-American War) at the turn of the 20th century prompted a wave of Filipino immigration to California.
In the 1920s, a Filipino immigrant named Pedro Flores started The Yo-Yo Manufacturing Company in that state. Cheap, durable, fun and easy to use, the yo-yo was an immediate sensation. Within a few years, demand for the toy was so great that Flores opened two additional factories, producing 300,000 yo-yos a day.
Flores’ sold the business for a Depression-era fortune to entrepreneur Donald Duncan, who trademarked the word Yo-Yo in 1932. The Duncan company has been manufacturing the toys ever since.
As far as I could determine, no one has done any research to confirm the link between the toy yo-yo and the fabric yo-yo, but their shared round shape and the coincidence of their peak popularity in the United States do make the connection seem plausible.
At the very least, there is something inherently playful about a fabric yo-yo. Quilters seem to have as much fun with them as kids playing with toy yo-yos!