March 2024

Covering Quilts

Ocean Waves quilts revisited

by Sandra Starley


Nature has long inspired quilters. As American quilting developed in Eastern seaboard settlements, it is not surprising that early quilt designs and pattern names often carried a nautical flair. In New England, quilts were influenced by the lives of the people who lived and worked there, and for many New Englanders, the overwhelming force was the ocean. Many traditional quilt patterns honor their influential neighbor. Some common New England nautical patterns are Mariner’s Compass, Ship of Life, Storm At Sea, Ocean Waves, and World Without End. The Ocean Waves quilts did not remain on the East Coast but traveled westward with the migrating population. By the latter half of the 19th century, “the Ocean Waves pattern was a staple of the American quiltmaker’s repertoire – even on the vast plains and in mountain reaches where the ocean itself seemed little more than a traveler’s tall tale or a half forgotten dream” (“American Patchwork & Quilting,” 1985). In the early 20th. century, the land-locked Midwestern Amish made many amazing full-sized quilts in the pattern, as well as crib quilts featuring just two or three blocks.

The pattern initially ap-peared in about 1855 and was very popular from 1880 to 1920. It was first published by Farm and Fireside in 1894 as Ocean Waves, which has remained the most common name for the block. Other published names include Waves of the Ocean, Odds and Ends, Odd Fellows Quilt, and Our Village Green. It features pieced triangle waves that cascade across the quilt, especially when the blocks are set on point creating interlocking X’s or a lattice look. For a calmer sea, the blocks can be straight set, which results in a cross design or grid pattern. The pattern is a “quilt of illusion” as it tricks the eye, and it is often difficult to see the pattern and determine where one block ends and another begins. Unlike many quilt blocks that are framed, Ocean Wave blocks are generally joined together without sashing strips, in an allover design. The pattern consists of four elongated hexagons (or lozenges) pieced around a center diamond or square to create an octagon block. It was traditionally hand pieced with difficult inset and partial seams. In 1935, quilt historian Carrie Hall noted it is “one of the authentic old-fashioned quilt patterns with a tang of the sea which shows its coastwise ancestry. It was a decided favorite with those who wished to put considerable piecing into the making of a beautiful quilt.”


a rocky road quilt

An Ocean Waves quilt top

An Ocean Waves top, circa 1890, 74” x 92”, from the Sandra Starley Collection. Image courtesy of the author

If you have always wanted to make one, you will be happy to learn there are many new techniques to make your journey easier and help you avoid sea sickness. One trick is to divide the block into its four lozenge components and treat each as separate blocks. This method divides the large center diamonds or squares into four segments and eliminates the inset seams. If you like precise paper piecing and working in small scale, stop by Candace Moore’s blog for a 6-inch block pattern (

Similarly, Bonnie Hunter has created an innovative pattern. She divided the pattern into two blocks: block A has four triangle sections (16 half squares), and block B features the center diamond with four triangles on each corner to square it up (

Maybe this is the year to turn your big scrap basket into a lovely Ocean Waves quilt. Enjoy the trip; I hope you will have smooth sailing.

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