Tumbling Blocks and Two Presidents!

Rhombille Tiling

Rhombille Tiling

Math geeks and fans of optical illusions are familiar with the rhombille tiling, more commonly known as tumbling blocks or reversible cubes.  The design is made with diamonds, with some diamonds set vertically and others set on their sides.  The cool visual effect is that cubes seem to be popping out of the page ... or, wait, are they sinking down into the page?  No, they're popping out ... in ... out ...

"Tumbling Blocks" has been a popular quilt pattern since at least the 1850s, and according to legend the pattern was used as a symbol on the Underground Railroad.  When a tumbling blocks quilt was hung on a fence the "boxes" were a signal to slaves to "box up" their clothes - the signal to leave would be coming soon! 

Even today, to "box up" means to pack.  To 19th century aristocrat planning a summer-long tour of Europe this referred to packing their clothes in a large steamer trunk - a box.  To a run-away slave boxing up meant carrying some extra clothes in a sack, not an actual box.

Some of our presidents have been tumbling blocks quilters!  Well, sort of.  It was common in the 19th century for boys to copy their mother's chores at a young age, often learning to knit, sew and quilt as they followed mother around doing her daily tasks.  As they grew older they moved out of their mother's sphere and into their father's world, learning the more masculine chores associated with farming and business.  Most men denied that they had ever done domestic tasks as a child, but in the case of Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Dwight Eisenhower we have proof that they did!

Calvin Coolidge, president from 1923 - 1929, was born in 1872.  ​When he was ten years old he pieced together a tumbling blocks quilt that is displayed at the Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site. His mother died about a year after the quilt was completed, which would have made this project all the more special to young Calvin.

Coolidge's Tumbling Blocks quilt in the Shed Room at Calvin Coolidge Museum

  Calvin Coolidge's tumbling blocks quilt in the Shed Room at the Calvin Coolidge Museum

Dwight D. Eisenhower, president from 1953 to 1961, was born in 1890.  He and his brother pieced together a tumbling blocks quilt, now at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library and Museum.  According to the museum, his mother sewed the quilt together around 1910.  Eisenhower would have been around 20 years old at the time, much to old for a boy to be piecing together a quilt.  It is more likely that young Eisenhower did the piecing much earlier - and Mrs. Eisenhower had a great big pile of unfinished projects that took her a while to complete (we have so much in common!).

Kaffe Fassett Knit-Along afghan

Kaffe Fassett's Knit-Along afghan,
featuring the popular tumbling blocks.

But you don't have to be a quilter - or a future president - to enjoy the tumbling blocks design!  Kaffe Fassett (his name rhymes with "safe asset") is a painter, knitter and needlepoint designer who is famous for his love of color!  Lots of color!

The new Kaffe Fassett Knit-Along is a vibrant knit afghan that has a total of 48 squares knit from 13 unique patterns - including his instantly recognizable tumbling block design using the intarsia colorwork method. 

Happy Knitting! ... Scout

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