Seeking Nelson’s Victory

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Nelson’s Victory block, October 2015

Last year, when I was working on my Nelson Quilt, I came across an old quilt block called Nelson’s Victory. I made a number of these Nelson’s Victory blocks with the long term aim of designing a quilt with a Battle of Trafalgar theme. I absolutely loathe sewing triangles, so I was quite surprised to find I’d completed eight of these blocks over a month or so – I’d been inspired by the fabled “Nelson Touch” once again.

I have a feeling that the Nelson’s Victory block dates from 1905, the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar, but I don’t have any real evidence to back up this feeling. However, once my interest is piqued, I can’t resist a research job, so I decided to see what I could find out about the history of this block.

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Old sewing books are a great source for old quilt blocks such as Robbing Peter to Pay Paul, Birds-in-the-Air, The Little Giant and so on.  They also provide all sorts of interesting snippets about the making of quilts; regional and national variations in quilt style and culture; and show how the quilting tradition has been constantly evolving over centuries.

I started with Averil Colby’s Patchwork, first published by Batsford in 1958. I found no mention of Nelson’s Victory but the book’s index pointed me to a couple of Nelson references. According to Colby:

After Nelson’s victory in the Battle of the Nile … the streets of Naples were decked with flags and streamers to welcome his return; among them were banners of blue-printed white cotton, on which the name NELSON was surrounded by a design of acorns and oak leaves. Pieces of this cloth were brought home by a young naval officer and used in a patchwork coverlet begun in the same year and finished in 1805, after Trafalgar. (page 31)

Other victories and occasions of the time do not seem to have been immortalised in patchwork patterns, except for the pieces of the Nelson print and an octagonal panel printed on the occasion of Princess Charlotte’s marriage to Prince Leopold in 1816 (page 112).

I would love to know what happened to that coverlet. Does it still survive? And where did Colby learn about it? Did she actually see it?

All truly fascinating stuff (and another research project for another day) but not quite what I was looking for. And Mavis Fitzrandolph’s Traditional Quilting: Its Story and its Practice (Batsford 1954) may have proved a fascinating read about quilters and rural industries but it didn’t provide any clues about Nelson’s Victory.

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Old Patchwork Quilts by Ruth E Finley

Then I stumbled across a copy of Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them by Ruth E Finley published by J P Lippincott in 1929. And there, on page 75, was a diagram of the Nelson’s Victory block.

Finley provides a detailed analysis of different types of quilt blocks and their construction and says that:

The four-patch in general resolves itself into flock, star and wreath designs. But there are notable exceptions, like the Fly Foot and Bow Knot patterns and such well known blocks, based on the same idea yet distinctly different when made up in colour, such as The Pin Wheel and The Churn Dash. Nelson’s Victory, an old Connecticut pattern of the cross variety, is another exception … This pattern was widely used in every-day quilts.

Nelson's Victory Blocks

Nelson’s Victory Blocks in progress, October 2015

So thanks to Finley’s book, I can trace Nelson’s Victory back to 1929. The reference to “an old Connecticut pattern” gives me a further clue and indicates that it was an established block by the time she was writing. So I will carry on searching for clues and hopefully will be able to find out whether my 1905 date is correct. Even if I can’t find the evidence, and even if I turn out to be wrong, I know I’ll learn lots of interesting things about quilts and their history along the way.

Nelson's Victory Quilt Block

From 1905? Nelson’s Victory Quilt Block

9 thoughts on “Seeking Nelson’s Victory

  1. What an intriguing puzzle! I’ll have to dig out my quilt books and take a look for you. Will let you know if I dig up anything to help you in your research.

      • I have only looked through a few (haven’t unpacked all my quilt books yet) but no luck so far. Only found the quilt documented as allegedly having been on Nelson’s bed at Trafalgar – it featured in the V&A quilt book of their big quilt expo a few years back, but I’m sure you’ll have seen that. Will keep looking…

  2. Lucinda says:

    I found your blog via Scrapiana’s Instagram feed, and am in awe of your Nelson quilt. (My sis is called after Lady Hamilton so I come from a long line of Nelson admirers).

    I came across the Nelson’s Victory block when designing an album quilt for a magazine project some years ago, in The Quilter’s Album of Patchwork Patterns by Jinny Beyer. Her source is cited as ‘Practical Needlework: Quilt Patterns’ c.1906, which takes you back almost to the centenary of the battle. There’s a scanned version of the book at this link http://www.antiquepatternlibrary.org/html/warm/B-HW002.htm but it’s password protected and I couldn’t work how to access it.

    For my quilt I designed an alternative version without those tricky set-in seams and called it Trafalgar.

    Do hope this helps!

    • Thank you so much Lucinda – that is so helpful. So – 1906! I will look out this source. I did my blocks over papers because I couldn’t face piecing it any other way. It was terribly fiddly!

      • Lucinda says:

        The Beyer book also has a cheat’s version with four half-square triangles in the middle, which comes from a 1929 by Finley. I think generations of quilters have avoided set-in seams!

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