Ruby Short McKim: Doodler to Quilter

This past Saturday was National Quilting Day, and marked one year since I started writing this blog. My original intention had been to introduce you to the Quilters Hall of Fame Collection because I had been working on the committee that is in charge of that.  But the pandemic shelter-in-place policy put a quick end to that and so I shifted to writing about the Honorees.  Now, with vaccinations, we should be able to get back to Collections work soon, and I’m looking forward to telling you about our “finds”.  In the meantime, this week I’ll write about Honoree Ruby Short McKim.

I’ll be the first to tell you that I don’t have the discipline to be a true researcher.  Generally, I poke around and find things, but often, I go about it the hard way.  This is a case in point.  I started out to see what McKim objects, if any, the Hall of Fame has; it turns out that we have quite a few quilts, and you can see them all at the link below. We also have some photos, including one with a block that caught my eye: “Smee the Irish Pirate”. Not knowing who Smee is, I went searching and learned that he is a character in J.M. Barrie’s play “Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up”. He’s Captain Hook’s bo’s’un, “stabs without offense” and darns socks for the boys. I suppose if I had kids or grandkids, I might have seen the Disney version and recognized the name. But the McKim version is on her Peter Pan quilt.  Now, if I had started with the Peter Pan quilt instead of just that one block, I might have missed Smee, thinking I knew all about the main characters. Here’s McKim’s Smee, Smee played by Edward Kipling in 1924, and a Disney version.

Well, that was a roundabout way to get to the fact that Ruby McKim was known for her patterns, including the Peter Pan quilt. You can take a more direct route by reading the bio information at the link below. And there’s also a link to a great article about McKim’s early years.

A doodler from an early age, McKim illustrated her high school yearbook and often included little sketches in her letters to family and friends.  She did a number of watercolor paintings, including one of Russell Stover’s garden—I didn’t know he was a real person, I just know the candy name. After formal training in New York City (a big move for a Midwest farm girl whose parents were Latter-Day Saints, but-never fear-she stayed with her older sister who was married to a missionary) McKim began her career as an art teacher, but soon seguéd to syndicating quilt patterns. Her first, “Bedtime Stories”, was based on the animal characters of Thornton Burgess, and she called them “Quaddy Quilties”—maybe because the characters were four-footed or was it because they had squared-off shapes? As an aside, Burgess, who was McKim’s fellow columnist at the Kansas City Star, wrote over 15,000 bedtime stories and 170 books, and collaborated with illustrator Harrison Cady. Here are some of McKim’s animals next to Cady’s frontispiece for one of the “Old Mother West Wind” books.

The McKim Quaddies are available as Spoonflower yardage (maybe because outline embroidery isn’t as popular now as it was when McKim was publishing in the 1920-30s, but we all love panels and color).  There’s a link below, and you can also get another design, “Toy Shop Windows”, at the same site.

The original patterns appeared as weekly newspaper installments, generally coming out over a twenty- week period to provide a 4 x 5 straight setting of the blocks (although some, such as “Bird Life” had twenty- four), usually sashed. The Kansas City Star, the Omaha World-Herald, the Nebraska Farmer, Woman’s World, Successful Farming, Indianapolis Star and the Ft. Wayne News-Sentinel were among the papers which carried her patterns. Each design for the Peter Pan quilt was accompanied by McKim’s fanciful telling of the story.  For example, Smee was said to be fat and jolly because he enjoyed pirating so much; the Father slept in Nana’s doghouse because, even though he was usually stern and dignified, he had remorse for leaving the children without their protector; Tinkerbell appeared as “a tiny darting light like a fire-fly or a wee tinkly noise so faint that you’d just imagine it wasn’t a sound at all.” The placement of the blocks in the “Peter Pan Quilt” was also specified: corner blocks were identified because their curved outlines were a design element. This is a listing of the series quilts, several of which can be found on the Quilt Index:

Quaddy Quiltie, Mother Goose Quiltie, Nursery Rhyme, Rhymeland Quilt, Roly-Poly Circus, Fruit Basket, Flower Basket, A Jolly Circus, Child Life Quilt, Alice in Wonderland Quiltie, Flower Garden, Bird Life or Audubon Quilt, Three Little Pigs, Colonial History, Bible History, Farm Life, Peter Pan, State Flowers, Wildwood Flowers, Toy Shop Window, Patchwork Sampler, Parade of States, and American Ships. (Let me know if I missed any.)

Here’s a quilt from the “Flower Garden” series with an alternate plain block setting and a special border.

Photo: TQHF

And here’s “Roly Poly Circus” with a traditional setting.

Photo: TQHF

In addition to the newspaper outlets, McKim’s designs appeared for several years in Child Life magazine. One of the features, appearing in 1923,  was “Fables in Fabric” in which a fable was printed in one column and an illustration of the fable (suitable for embroidery) was next to it. Included in this series was “The Fox and the Grapes”, “Tortoise and Hare” (intended to be a counterpane), “Goose That Laid the Golden Egg”, “Wise Owl and Foolish Grasshopper”, and (designed for a laundry bag, although I don’t see any connection between image and use) “Frog Who Looked Before He Leaped”. McKim illustrated the first fable, but other illustrators interpreted her sketches for the final fables.

By the late 1920s, the Colonial Revival caught up with McKim, and her work expanded into appliqué and piecing.  McKim published two catalogs, Designs Worth Doing, and Adventures in Needlecraft. Individual patterns from the Designs series are available on Etsy, and you may find some from Adventures as well. Here’s a quilt from those catalogs, made by Rosie Marie Werner, an expert on kit quilts:

Trumpet Vine. Rosie Werner. From Minnesota Quilters Inc., Minnesota Quilt Project. Published in The Quilt Index, Accessed: 03/21/21

I can’t tell whether to call this style Art Deco or to just say it’s reminiscent of McKim’s other quad/square designs.  Either way I like it, so here are two more stylized floral McKim quilts.

If you want a break from quilt-making, but still want to be quilt-connected, Designs Worth Doing is being re-imagined by McKim’s granddaughters as Designs Worth Coloring. This series combines Ruby’s floral designs with zentangle backgrounds; books are available at the McKim Studios site below. (This is probably a good point at which to say that you can find all things Ruby Short McKim, including a notecard of that Russell Stover Garden watercolor, at this site.  Happy shopping!)

Ruby Short McKim may be best-known to day as the author of 101 Patchwork Designs, published in 1931 and re-issued by Dover in 1962. It originally had a lavender cloth cover, but now looks like this, or this, or this:

Don’t be fooled like I was; they’re all the same inside—only the cover is different.  I own all three.

Some of the block designs were also patterns for a sampler published in the Kansas City Star.  Here’s a quilt made from that series; You can find lots of samples in mixed colors, but this limited palette is unusual.

Russell, Effie E. Brawne. Aunt Effie’s Yellow Quilt. 1930-1949. From Indiana State Museum, Indiana Quilt Registry Project. Published in The Quilt Index, Accessed: 03/21/21

Now I’m going to close with one final McKim picture, a “House on the Hill” block from the Kansas City Star.

I have four of these blocks, and wonder what to do with them.  The Quilters Hall of Fame already has one donated by Honoree Cuesta Benberry, so they don’t need more. I could set them into a small quilt, but they really aren’t my style.  “Why did you buy them?” you ask.  I’m at a loss to explain; I knew they were something historical, but that doesn’t help. Please send suggestions.

Your quilting friend,


TQHF McKim objects.

Bio info.

Early years.

Quaddy fabric.

McKim Studios.

Smooth Sailing With Carter Houck

I was interested to read that this week’s Honoree, Carter Houck, was a sailor; I thought I could write about something we have in common. But she was a racer, and I was a cruiser (my husband and I crewed on the Schooner “Madeline” out of Traverse City, Michigan)—totally different experiences. Even so, it made me wonder if there was a connection between Carter’s sailing and quilting. I searched and searched and only came up with this book she wrote:

Carter also enjoyed hiking and was active in an Appalachian Trail organization, but I couldn’t find anything on that either.  So, that leaves me to tell you about her quilt career; don’t worry–there’s lots of material there. You can read her bio at the link below, and I’ll give you a few extra bits. After studying fashion and working for Singer and Butterick on the East Coast, Carter found herself with her family in Texas. But, to use a sailing term, she wasn’t becalmed. She contacted the editor of the largest newspaper in the state, the Fort Worth Star Telegraph, and convinced them that they needed a sewing column (which she could write from home while caring for her children, and submit by mail). Here’s the announcement telling of the upcoming feature.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Nov. 8, 1950

These columns dealt mainly with garment and home décor sewing (lots of ruffles included), but one she did on appliqué could hold its own in any quilt book. The accompanying sketch shows Carter’s pattern-making skills.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram. June 6, 1951.

She knew her audience, and in addition to suggesting the use of appliqué for decorating children’s clothes and making knee patches, she noted, “Occasionally, on such things as western shirts, where the material is heavy, and the design all in one color, you will wish to outline it in another color.”

Following a move back East and a ten-year hiatus, Carter began another sewing column, this time for Parents Magazine. She then moved to Lady’s Circle Needlework, where she and her photographer/business partner, Myron Miller, scoured the old homes of Connecticut to find samples of embroidery and other handwork for the magazine.  And that’s how her quilt career started.  When they found some quilts in a bedroom, Myron said to Carter, “These are it! Forget all of that piddly diddly needlework, quilts are really exciting.” Carter knew that the only quilting magazine of the day was the black-and-white Quilter’s Newsletter (published by another Honoree, Bonnie Lehman), and that since Lady’s Circle had color printing capability, they could successfully compete. Carter edited Lady’s Circle Patchwork Quilts magazine for 20 year. And she came to be a feature writer for the competition as well. Here are some covers to give you an idea of how quilting evolved over the span of her editorship.

It was a small step from editing into publishing and Carter was prolific in that area. She’s known for writing the quilting books shown here. (Treasury and American Quilts have art-quality photos by Myron Miller.)

She worked with Honoree Donna Wilder on the first two below, and with Robert Bishop on the second two:

And showing her general needle craft expertise, she is also credited with these.

In addition to her own books and those she co-authored, Carter edited Christine Dobbs’ Crazy Quilts and wrote the introduction to Pat Long Gardner’s Handkerchief Quilts.  Impressive! You could get a good start on filling a library with all of Carter’s books.

Her renown in the print world led to invitations to judge at quilt shows. She was also a quilting judge for the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City. In an interview with the Quilt Alliance (link below), she gives some insight into the early days when shows were more “hometown”, but hectic in other respects.   Here’s Carter judging a local guild show:

Cotton Patch Quilters, March 2001

Although she was proficient with the needle, Carter is not known for her own quilts. She freely admitted that her knowledge of quilts came from 20 years of handling, photographing and looking up the history of other people’s quilts.  I couldn’t find any Carter Houck quilts on the internet—nothing in the Quilt Index or the International Quilt Museum, not even in the folklore museum for whom she judged. But here’s one photo of Carter with a quilt she “rescued” and remade (from “Passing on a Little Bit of Who I Am”: The Transmission of Quiltmaking to a New Generation by Christine Humphery).

Photo: Quilt Alliance

The Quilters Hall of Fame does have one piece of Carter’s work, but it’s in a quilt made by another Honoree, Georgia Bonesteel. Georgia asked quilters to make blocks for a quilt that she would put together; the blocks were to be houses representing their lifestyles or quilting styles. This is what Carter sent her- a two story deep pink Victorian house with center gable and circular window. The second story has a horizontal rectangular framed piece of white Aida cloth with the name “Carter Houck” cross-stitched in medium blue, and two square two-over-two windows. The porch roof and the house and gable roof have crocheted trim, probably hand done, to represent gingerbread molding.

Block by Carter Houck
Georgia Bonesteel. Three Banners: The Street Where Quilters Live. From the collection of The Quilters Hall of Fame.

Okay, since I couldn’t find any hobby photos of Carter, I’m going to close with an image from the company of her second husband, A. Grant Holt, who, with a couple of Amherst College friends, operated a Christmas décor business in the 1960s.  I actually have one of these things, and I’ll bet they, or other Holt Howard ceramic items, are familiar to you too.  My editor thinks these are scary, but I say they are typical “mid-century modern”.

So, the next time you read a quilting magazine, or get out your Christmas decorations, or go for a hike/sail, think of Carter Houck.  She passed a year ago in April, and I’m sure she has found what every sailor looks for: fair winds and following seas.

Your quilting friend,


Bio info.


Passing On a Little Bit. (scroll down for Carter; or read the interesting entries preceding hers)

Averil Colby: Old-Fashioned Manners and a Thoroughly Modern Technique

This week’s Honoree, Averil Colby, would fit right in with the contemporary taste for English Paper Piecing. Yes, she herself was English, and little hexagons were her preferred method of creating, as we’ll see in a moment. But first, a short introduction; for a fuller bio, see the link below.

Colby was Chairman of the Handicraft Committee of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes and was instrumental in organizing courses, classes, and exhibitions to promote and preserve the quilting crafts. Her first book came out in the late 1950s when quilting in Britain was as dormant as it was in the States. According to the Hall of Fame record, “Batsford, a London publishing firm, asked her to write a book on patchwork, as up to then nothing had been published in such depth on the subject in England.” As an aside, this statement makes me wonder how the connections came about, but that’s a research project for someone else.  At any rate, Colby produced four quilt-related books and one book on pincushions, all of which are still available.

The quilt books earned Colby a reputation as a quilt historian, and she is still cited today as an authority on Welsh and North Country quilts.  Her documentation of British quilts is well-respected and is a source of patterning for quilters looking for a reproduction project.  Here’s one of the quilts she found, a 1790 “Marriage Coverlet” along with a modern version called “Love Entwined” (A pattern for the full quilt or a simplified –they say;  it would still be too much for me—instructions for the center only are available at the link below):

Of course, when dealing with quilt history, there are many blanks to fill in.  Colby, like her US counterparts, often speculated, and (not to detract from her reputation but to put her in a mortal/human light) there is a noted instance when her imagination took a wrong turn.  Here’s the quilt in question and a detail of the section that caused Colby to go astray:

Colby looked at this quilt and imagined it had been made by a farmer’s wife because of the presence of so many domesticated animals. She also noted the picket fence enclosure. This theory didn’t explain the anchors or the exotic animals, and completely left the two largest figures on the quilt unaccounted for, but her view was accepted until recently. That’s when a researcher at the Victoria and Albert made the connection to a statue which was well-known around the time the quilt had been made. (There’s some good non-quilt background information about the statue, so I’ve included two interesting links below.)

The Greek Slave. 1843/1846. Hiram Powers

The original statue was displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and it became popular in ballads, satires, journalism, prints and engravings. Miniature copies were also popular for the rest of the century, and Powers applied for a patent to prevent wholesale copying and profiteering. But his statue is probably the true inspiration for the main figures on the coverlet, despite Colby’s focus on the agricultural connections. Maybe I shouldn’t have said she was wrong;  a farmer’s wife (or the wife of a local landed squire) could have made the quilt, but Colby sure missed the big point.

Well, now let’s talk about Colby’s own needlework. Take a look at these sweet examples from the Collection of the Guild Museum of the Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles. (All of the descriptive text below the photos is from the Guild Museum.)

Averil Colby Samples. Various Averil Colby samples of hexagons and clusters from printed and plain cotton fabrics. The image also shows some of the samples with examples from the (museum’s) Averil Colby Fabric Collection, which dates from the end of the 18th Century to the 20th Century.

And here’s another shot from the Quilters’ Guild Museum to give you some sense of scale. If that purple pincushion has such small sides—I presume the gauge is metric, but even in inches the measure is impressive– imagine how tiny the little red pieces are! (Right foreground of the above photo)

Hexagon Rosette Pin Cushions. Two hexagon rosette pin cushions made by Averil Colby. One has striped fabric with a central blue rose and a mauve central hexagon, and the other with plain mauve hexagons and a central purple hexagon, decorated with a circle of sequins and beads.

Colby was a prodigious maker of pincushions.  It’s reported that she worked while she had callers and often sent a completed pincushion home with them when the visit was over. Not all of Colby’s work was Lilliputian.  Here are two more items from the Quilters’ Guild Museum that are larger than the little pincushions.

Averil Colby Samples (mounted)
Banner. Made from 81 hexagons of silk and satin stars joined together by brown velvet lozenges, mounted on a pole with a silk cord for hanging. The hexagons are hand-pieced and the papers are still intact. The banner is finished on the back with a coarse netting. The maker and date of the hexagons is unknown but thought to date to the late 19th/early 20th century. The loose hexagons were assembled together by Miss Averil Colby in 1960

Colby amassed a collection of fabrics spanning the late 1700s to the middle of the 20th century. And she used what she collected.

Averil Colby Fabric. Museum of the Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles
Unfinished pieces by Averil Colby. Collection of
G. Spiller’s Quilt, 1839. Repaired by Averil Colby using fabrics from her collection. Museum of the Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles.

Although she obviously could handle a needle and thread, Colby didn’t do much actual quilt-making; she didn’t think she was “good enough.”  But she pieced what the Brits call mosaics. This last piece brings us to the modern connection: hexies. 

Black Frost Cushion. 1953. Victoria and Albert Museum. Given by the Needlework Development Scheme

Hexies took off in the mid-to-late 2000s, and I made a quilt using the EPP (English Paper Piecing) method. It was easy, accurate and relaxing to do in front of the wood fire one winter, so I understand the attraction for Colby. For me, it was a “one and done”, and I wondered if the trend is still alive.

Answer: Oh YES! Hexagons of all sizes (the larger they are, the more modern the quilt, but many updated Grandmother’s Flower Gardens can also be seen on Pinterest). And the technique is now applied to shapes beyond the hexagon, so there are Caesar’s Crowns and Castle Wall quilts too. Tula Pink has this fun pillow which is so different from Colby’s.

Tula Nova pattern.

I’ve included some links below if you are interested in a tutorial on EPP.

That covers the modern, but you may remember my initial reference to old-fashioned manners. I always feel fortunate when my reading about an Honoree turns up something that shows a human-interest side of her or him. The quilt-related facts show the public persona, but sometimes I find something a little more private (well, not exactly private because it’s on the internet; maybe lesser-known or tangential is a better description). And that’s when I know I would have liked to be friends with the person I’m writing about. Here’s what I found about Averil Colby.

This is a sample of her editing of the galleys for her first book.  How many authors would use the phrase “be kind enough to…”? She could have used a simple proofreader’s mark (a squashed-down “C” super-imposed on a double slash).  Or she could have just written a directive.  But instead she asked, as if the printer would be doing her a favor. She elevated and equalized the transaction.  That’s old-fashioned manners, and I very much would have enjoyed knowing a person who could bring such grace to a business transaction.

Your quilting friend,


Bio info.

Love Entwined. You might also be interested in the designer’s comments on her making of the pattern.

The Greek Slave statue. Also:

Tula Pink pattern.

Missouri Star tutorial.

More on paper piecing,

Michael James: Rhythm and Color

One good thing about writing this blog is that I learn a lot of new things about some pretty extraordinary people. An even better thing is that I learn when I’ve been wrong about one of them.  Case in point: Michael James. There’s bio information about him in the link below, but if you’re like I was, you may be saying, “I know Michael James; he’s the guy that does those striped art quilts.” Yes, but read on.

With his formal art background, Michael James began quilting for art’s sake. He came into quilting in the era of the Whitney Abstract Design show, and his early work is replete with form and color.  Here’s an example with complementary hues, value changes and more y-seams than I would care to make.

Elaborated Tangram. 1976. International Quilt Museum.

Shortly after that quilt, the stripes took over. James made his own yardage from strips of cotton and silk sewn together in gradations of color or value, and he experimented with this medium for nearly fifteen years. You’re going to recognize the signature Michael James style in the next three quilts.

Rhythm/Color: Spanish Dance. 1985. Newark Museum.

This is one of a series named after dance styles, and there’s plenty of movement in the quilt; other quilts in the series include Morris Men and Bacchanal. You can appreciate the color work here, and still recognize the Drunkard’s Path block. That changes in the next quilt.

Quilt #150: Rehoboth Meander. 1993. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of the James Renwick Alliance.

The stripes are still there, but what happened to the block? The comfortable curve of the Drunkard’s Path has gotten jagged. Also, the grid is completely overridden, and I wouldn’t want to guess how this piece was put together. I can identify vertical panels, but no horizontal blocks. James consciously tried to move away from the traditional quilt block construction method; he felt that it was becoming “too predictable.”

The last of my stripe examples shows James as a painter. He’s trying to capture a scene and use his art to evoke an experience.

Aletsch. 1990. National Quilt Museum.

James explains his inspiration:

Aletsch is part of a series of quilts that represent my efforts to synthesize sensory responses to a particular space: the vast mountainous basin in the Swiss Alps that encloses the Aletsch Glacier, the largest in Europe. In the summer of 1988 I spent several days hiking along its perimeter, which extends many kilometers down from the Jungfrau firn. What impressed me most was the very audible sound of millions of gallons of water rushing unseen beneath the perfectly still expanse of glacier. It seemed incongruous: the unrelenting movement of so much water and the stone rigidity of so much ice. Combined with the brilliance of the light and the clarity of the air, that incongruity made for a very memorable scenario.

But let’s go back to a simple version of the stripes because it will set the stage for telling you how I was wrong about Michael James:

Interweave. 1982. International Quilt Museum.

Interweave looks like something you or I could make. Maybe not with all those colors (some of his quilts have as many as 150 different colors), and probably not with such mastery of value and luminosity.  But I could construct this quilt, and so could a beginner. And that’s just the thing: Michael James began as a beginner. And he did the hard work of learning to quilt well because to him, “good craftsmanship is the foundation on which the art of the quilt rests…. as much depends on craft as on vision.”

So now we come to the part I was wrong about.  I think of Michael James as only an art quilter, but there’s a backstory. In addition to formal art training, he has a history with traditional quilting. And I’m not just talking about his family background in the textile industry. (His great-grandparents emigrated from rural Quebec and from Preston, Lancashire to work in the textile mills of south-eastern Massachusetts, where he grew up in the shadow of the local textile mill himself.)

 He wrote (in addition to other things) two how-to books. I own both, but had never really looked at them because I’ve given up on the idea that I will ever be an art quilter. I made the mistake of thinking these books were just about making art quilts. When I pulled my copies off the shelf to start writing, I got a big surprise.  They aren’t about art quilts; they’re about quilting. 

These are-IMHO- the best basic instructional books available.  In the first handbook, the descriptions of basic techniques are scrupulously written and the photos show it all broken into each individual step.  I haven’t come across a better explanation of the quilting stitch. The second handbook brings that same full explanation to the more artistic components including design and use of color. If I still wanted to make a graphic-style art quilt, I could follow these steps.  These books can be found on the used book sites and for under $3.00 on Amazon—well worth the price.

Well, the books were just the beginning of my finding that I didn’t know Michael James like I thought I did.  But I’ve learned.

I now know that for the last twenty or so years, he’s been making digital quilts (quilts constructed with fabric on which he has printed and tinkered with images—his art major was painting and printmaking). I’ll give you just a small taste of those, and you can find more on the links below (his website, International Quilt Museum  collections search and IQM exhibit), and Pinterest is full of images of his digital work.

What interests me about these quilts, in addition to their beauty or creativity, is James’ “take” on the process. He places digital printing squarely in line with the historical evolution of other quilt-related processes (think of the development of roller printing) and is surprised that the general quilt world doesn’t see the connection. He doesn’t mind cutting up a lovely, printed image (which he may have spent hours manipulating) any more than I would hesitate to cut a commercial fabric. And his foundation in traditional piecing techniques allows the most difficult inserts.

While poking around for material, I came across a comment from someone who had purchased one of James’ books.  She mused (queried/complained) that a man who makes quilts can be called an artist but a woman is just a quilter. Never mind that the comment is limited and petty; I now know that Michael James is an artist who has worked all of his adult life with his chosen medium, and is still a quilter at heart. And that’s why he’s in The Quilters Hall of Fame.

Your quilting friend,


Bio info.

James website.

International Quilt Museum collections search. (Type in “James, Michael” in the quiltmaker box).

IQM Ambiguity-Enigma exhibition