Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Quilts of illusion: tumbling blocks

Hexagon quilts are making a comeback, and we've seen some inspiring modern variations.  Tumbling blocks are hexagon shapes made with three diamonds (or two diamonds plus two 60-degree triangles), which are shaded so that they look three dimensional. They can be combined with other hexagons to make tessellating designs. They are our favorite quilts of illusion!  Today we are sharing a gallery of tumbling block quilts we've admired.

Tumbling Blocks Quilt exhibited by Janet Kraus, 2013 AZQG show

The interesting fabrics and blue border really make this classic-yet-modern tumbling blocks quilt.  There are bits of orange and red, large and small prints and batiks!  The blocks are pieced in the classic way with diamonds that form inset or Y-seams. Janet chose a spiral quilting design which reminds us of the planets in orbit around the sun.

close up, Tumbling Blocks Quilt exhibited by Janet Kraus, 2013 AZQG show

Tumbling Blocks quilt exhibited by Joan Bergdolt, 2013 AZQG

Here's an example of how nearly solid colors create an excellent optical illusion of a three-dimensional figure. The wavy line quilting of the inner border creates visual interest and helps to soften the stark and angular geometric lines of the blocks.

In the close-up you can see that the top of each cube is made from two 60-degree triangles instead of a single diamond; this "quick" method of tumbling block construction avoids the need for inset or Y-seams.  The quick method was described in detail Sara Nephew's classic 2001 book, the Big Book of Building Block Quilts.

Primary Half-Hex quilt exhibited by Lynn Kough, 2013 AZQG show

Every shape in here is a hexagon comprised of two pieces (a "half hex").  They are placed such that they make a tessellation, in which all the pieces interlock together. Lynn's use of mostly solid red, blue, and yellow fabrics creates a sharp, clear, contrast so that the individual blocks really "pop" off the background fabric. The primary color hexagons do not create a 3-D illusion; however, in every other row, the taupe blocks are shaded so that they create the appearance of a 'Y' shape when sewn together.

Close up, Primary Half-Hex quilt exhibited by Lynn Kough, 2013 AZQG show

1000 Pyramids - Inner City, exhibited by Lynn Kough, 2013 AZQG show

Lynn Kough has created a very contemporary quilt by combining an Inner City design with 1000 pyramids (1000 pyramids refers to 60-degree triangles placed side by side in a tessellation).  "Inner City" was originally named by quilt artist Jinny Beyer. These interlocking blocks can be seen as representing hundreds of closely placed buildings in a high density neighborhood. In this quilt, Lynn has broken up some of the hexagons and triangles into even tinier pieces as shown below.

Close-up of  1000 Pyramids - Inner City, exhibited by Lynn Kough

You can see how perfectly pieced these small triangles are. Lynn's quilt is really a marvel of workmanship.  For more information,  and other beautiful photos,  take a look at Lynn Kough's website. For a view of the original Inner City pattern, please see Jinny Beyer's website.

Izobel's Quilt by Barbara Beil, 2013 CCCQG show

This tumbling blocks variation is another Y-version illusion and it is pieced in a manner similar to Lynn Kough's Half Hex quilt.  We first discussed the illusion in our 2010 post called Tumbling Blocks - More Illusions  (careful selection of fabric values is the key!)  In the closeup below you can see the light fabrics (top of the Y), medium value fabrics (right side of the Y) and dark fabrics (left side of the Y) which create the illusion of three dimensions. 

Exhibitor Barbara Bell writes, "After our friend and fellow quilter Izobel Scully left the Bay Area, a group of us went to visit her in Roseville, California. While showing us her new quilting room, she opened a drawer full of unfinished quilt tops...I was attracted to the top with the geometric shapes.
I could imagine the fun Izobel had finding the perfect fabrics to get this three dimensional effect... I floated the blocks on black and then used a small blue border with an additional black border to finish it off. I constructed a backing that I thought would complement the front and machine quilted it in the ditch."

Spinning Blocks by Louise Tilby, 2012 AZQG show

We like this intriguing tumbling blocks variation, in which 6 blocks surround a central hexagon.  Louise Tilby says, "The hand applique was done using the English paper piecing method, which entails basting the fabric to paper templates, then appliqueing them to the background fabric."  We enjoyed Louise's marvelous craftsmanship and her monochromatic color selections.  The blocks are quilted with wavy lines that enhance the "spinning" effect.

 Image credits:  Photos were taken by Quilt Inspiration. For more information and links, see these original articles: Optical Illusions,   Tumbling Blocks -More Illusions, Cubic Construction, and Tumbling Blocks Divided by 4 or 9.  Also see "What's In Your Box" by Elisa Lawrance at the 2010 Arizona Quilt Show.


  1. These quilts are amazing. I've made one before, but makes me want to start another. Particularly love the spinning blocks.

  2. Shades of Escher! All those set-in seams would drive me nuts.

  3. Hard to pick only one fav.Thanks for the great pics!

  4. I have a Navajo rug in the tumbling blocks design, it's beautiful. One of these quilts would be a nice addition to my home. ;)


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