The Much Loved ‘Little Red School House’

Hi Everybody,

An 1840 Restored Schoolhouse – image from Kathleen Tracy’s blog ‘A Sentimental Quilter’


If you have been following me for a while, you will know that I love houses and have spent the last few years making a LOT of house quilts, probably far too many. However, that is going to change in the near future. I think I have made enough houses. They will keep popping up for a while because I have some mini house quilts to finish and three or four large ones that I haven’t started yet. One is a hanging for the wall behind my bed, one a baby quilt size and the last one, the largest I will have ever made, is single bed size. The last one will be a way of working that I haven’t tried yet, creating pieced areas and then joining them with paths in a random way, rather like Gwen Marston’s Liberated Quilts. I am excited about getting started on that.

I can’t begin to leave houses behind, though, without a celebration of the charming little American School House, beloved of so many quilters. There are dozens of variations of the original now, in shape, size and overall design, from the old schoolhouse with a bell tower to a hut or log cabin design and from a simple one room house or cottage with a chimneys to something resembling a modern house.

School House design as modern townhouse: Readin’ and Writin’ and ‘Rithmetic Quilt Pattern by Roxie Wood of Thimble Creek Quilts.

Details vary enormously too: A longer roof, taller windows, shorter windows, more windows, one door, no door, one chimney or two, a path or strip of grass below, or none. And although most schoolhouses featured on traditional quilts were red, followed by a quite a number in indigo blue, today a whole variety of colours are used. It is fast becoming seen as a traditional ‘house block’ rather than the ‘Schoolhouse block’. I have been wondering when it all began. So I thought I would do some searching….

Apparently the house block began to proliferate in the late 1800’s (though I am sure there must have been quite a few made, here and there, before then because representational/pictorial blocks showing familiar things have always appealed to quilt makers.  Early house blocks depicting shapes not unlike the schoolhouse had a variety of names, such as Old Kentucky Home, The Old Homestead, Jack’s House, Old Folks at Home, Lincoln’s Log Cabin and Honeymoon Cottage. The red Schoolhouse, a variation of these, seems to have appeared between the 1870’s and 1890’s (though one or two antique school house quilts have been dated to the 1850’s and 1860’s.).

Honeymoon Cottage designed by Ruby McKim in 1935 (from 101 Patchwork Patterns by Ruby McKim)

I have found a few clues as to its first appearance, any or all of which could be a reason for how important it became in the lives of quilters. Settlers poured into the West for a better life, and part of that better life was education. The schoolhouse was probably one of the most important public buildings to be built in each community in the wake of compulsory education laws which made it mandatory for children to go to school. Moreover, For rural women of the time, teaching came to be both prestigious and lucrative work and the schoolhouse pattern may reflect the lives of the women who supported their families in this way.

Whatever the reasons for its first appearance, it was not until 1929 that the schoolhouse was officially named and immortalised in print by a woman called Ruth Finley who referred to it as the ‘Little Red Schoolhouse’ in her book ‘Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women who Made Them’.

Finley’s book followed a time of renewed interest in quilt making at the turn of the century and during the Colonial Revival (1910-1930), an interest which blossomed further with the coming of the Great Depression when making quilts from scraps seemed a prudent act of thriftiness. The trend continued well into the 1930’s and I imagine that it wasn’t much later before the old one room schoolhouses began to disappear from people’s lives and reappear in quilt blocks created by the mothers and daughters who remembered them with fondness.

Much later during the second World War, people paid to have their names embroidered on quilts that were then raffled as a way of raising funds for the Red Cross. The school house pattern was one of these. You can see that, by making a small separation between roof and walls, it could easily accommodate areas for stitching.

Little Red Schoolhouse quilt – image borrowed from

What is especially interesting is that whereas almost all modern House blocks face to the front, the traditional schoolhouse and it variations always face to the side, often with the addition of a bell tower or steeple to turn it into a church or town hall.

image borrowed from

I believe the depth of field suggested by this side view has added to its particular charm and, all these years later, has made it among the most loved of all the pictorial blocks and with the greatest number of variations.

I am told it that a schoolhouse block is challenging for quilters to create, since it means joining acute angles. It is also quite difficult to English Paper piece. I often use paper patterns printed off the internet when the shapes of paper pieces I need are not available for purchase. These can be flimsy and imprecise, making them difficult to use for piecing. This is particularly true of the Schoolhouse but as yet there are no English Paper Pieced papers available for this design.

One of my earliest house quilts ‘Hut on Butterfly Hill’ (schoolhouse design as hut)

However (and this is exciting news) yesterday I asked if she would make me an English Paper Pieced 4 x 12 inch schoolhouse blocks for a wall hanging I want to make, and she agreed. A short while ago she made an English Paper Pieced log cabin design at my request. A website where you can purchase English Paper Pieces custom made to our own designs – how wonderful is that? Do visit her website and ask question; she deserves to be more widely celebrated.

Modern takes on the Schoolhouse design can be made in all solids, all prints, or any combination of the two. It is a great pattern for using up your scraps. The background is often lighter but doesn’t need to be; navy blue and black make great back drops. There does, however, need to be enough contrast in value so that the house stands out against the background and the doors and windows stand out against the frame of the house itself.

I had intended to make several schoolhouses for this post but I have now decided to wait for my paper pieces which will, I hope, result in more accurate piecing and therefor more attractive blocks. This is where I am so far with my most recent one, and it’s not going well.

I have used a circus themed fabric for the house which will have a cream background and a border of stars.

Interestingly, Joen Wolfron once said, in ‘American Quilter’ magazine, “A finished quilt which has no imperfections, artistically or technically, is one that was created within the quilter’s comfort zone. No significant learning will take place when we stay in this safe place.”

That certainly makes me feel a little better about my unevenly pieced schoolhouse blocks, though I have decided that I am not a fan of the short roof top and closely placed chimneys and I want my next attempt to be something like this (below) without the patterned strips on the roof and wall.

A rough template for future use

So, it looks as if there will have to be a second post on the ‘Little Red Schoolhouse’ sometime in the future, when I have tried out my new paper pieced Schoolhouses and can how you how they turned out.

Whew, that was a l o n g post, so I hope you are still with me. Till next time….





4 thoughts on “The Much Loved ‘Little Red School House’

  1. Lesley – this is a lovely and calming piece to read on a fraught morning. In addition to COVID-19, my world is in the middle of all the wildfires and the smoke is holding us all indoors again. So I enjoyed more than ever reading about your creative spirit and seeing the beautiful possibilities. It felt like a big still possible hug from across the sea. Thanks so much for being there and giving us joy when we need it.
    Love to you and yours. Stay safe. Stay creating!
    Molly in Oregon


    • Thank you Molly. The wildfires sound frightening. I complain about all the rain we have here in western Scotland but at least that means such things are unlikely. It’s a rural place with a small population so staying safe is easier. I hope all goes well with the paintings you have on show, despite the “botheration”.


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