September 2021

Covering Quilts

A tisket, a tasket, a delightful antique basket – Antique basket quilts

by Sandra Starley


Basket quilts

Basket quilts are a traditional and beloved quilt design. Whether full of appliqued flowers or simply standing on their own, basket quilts bring a smile to all. Baskets are useful objects in every culture and therefore are a design that everyone recognizes. This adds to their universal appeal.

Stitched in early wholecloth designs and showcased on elegant pillar print fabrics of the 1820s, baskets have been a popular quilting motif for centuries. There are two broad pattern styles. The first are applique designs commonly filled with flowers.

A C. 1860 basket quilt with applique border (detail), from New York, in the Sandra Starley quilt

A C. 1860 basket quilt with applique border (detail), from New York, in the Sandra Starley quilt collection. (photo courtesy of the author)

The other are pieced patterns that are empty or with simple floral accents. The pieced patterns tend to be composed of a series of half square triangles to make the basket (pieced into a large triangle shape covering half the block). The top half of the block usually sports a hand appliqued handle. Pieced blocks are most frequently set on point to keep the baskets upright. Other patterns feature all piecing with a solid triangle base and small triangles creating the basket contents. These blocks generally do not have handles. There are a large variety of basket patterns with 121 different pieced designs shown in Barbara Brackman’s Pattern Encyclopedia.

The most elaborate applique baskets are seen on intricate Baltimore Album Quilts, circa 1850. One of the hallmarks of that style is delicate applique baskets overflowing with detailed applique flowers. These baskets were often woven of thin strips requiring very skilled needlework. This mid-century period also found many basket quilts, both pieced and appliqued, being made throughout the settled regions of the United States. This was a time when women were starting to concentrate on gardening and beautifying their homes. The cult of domesticity directed that they should be creating an Eden at home. They studied the language of flowers and not surprisingly this domestic floral focus showed up on bed quilts in addition to flower beds.

An 1890 Mennonite Basket Quilt with quilted hearts from Lancaster County, PA,

An 1890 Mennonite Basket Quilt with quilted hearts from Lancaster County, PA, in the Sandra Starley quilt collection. (photo courtesy of the author)

Mennonites and Amish Quilts

In Pennsylvania and the Midwest, Mennonites and Amish enjoyed making basket quilts. They viewed baskets as symbols of spiritual and domestic abundance. More than a just a utilitarian object, it was a symbol of optimism. Think of the basket as being half-full rather than half-empty. Remember the seemingly unfilled baskets feeding the multitudes in the Bible. A basket may appear empty until one looks more closely. An 1890s Mennonite cheddar basket quilt has hearts quilted under each handle and is literally full of love.

The Colonial Revival period (1920s-1940s) and the rise of syndicated pattern designers ushered in a wave of new basket quilt designs featuring pieced blocks garnished with applique floral and fruit motifs. Several designers created pattern series showcasing a bed-sized quilt pattern of multiple baskets. These were often published on a weekly or monthly basis.

Basket quilts made by applique, piecing, and mixed techniques continue to be popular today. Whether featuring a single basket in a medallion setting, several pieced baskets on a top, or a single basket among a variety of blocks in a sampler. Traditional, stylized, or modern, the basket motif is here to stay. There are basket designs to appeal to every level of quilter from simple geometric patterns for a new quilter to intricate applique patterns that keep an advanced quilter occupied for a year. I hope you will do an online search for antique as well as modern basket quilts. You will be surprised at all the amazing designs.

You may be inspired by them to create your own basket block or quilt.
Have fun exploring and quilting!

Sandra Starley is nationally certified quilt appraiser, quilt historian, and avid antique quilt collector. She travels throughout the U.S. presenting talks on antique quilt history, fabric dating classes and trunk shows as well as quilting classes. Learn more at Send your comments and quilt questions to