Quilt pattern designer, Judy Mathieson, specializes in Mariner's Compass patterns. I asked her to share some information with us and she offered the following introduction to the Mariner's Compass quilt.
"Mariner's Compass is the name quilters use to refer to star designs that radiate from the center of a circle as opposed to the star designs that grow from a square, like Ohio Star or Sawtooth Star. If you are going to call your design a Mariner's Compass it should probably have 16 or 32 points like the compass card on a magnetic compass or a map. Barbara Brackman says that this is one of the earliest named quilting designs in America.
Although the design source is lost in history it probably had something to do with the design as seen on navigational maps. Certainly there is a large proportion of existing antique quilts from the Atlantic Coast area made with this design. Any quilter who is interested in this design would benefit from a study of sailing charts as far back as the 16th century."1
It's not surprising that the Mariner's Compass pattern is one of the earliest quilt patterns. The design is a very old one. Before the compass was available early mariners depended on a wind chart called the windrose. Though not always reliable it was the best that could be done before the magnetic compass came into use in the late 13th century.
For some time after sailors still depended on the winds, as they didn't completely trust the magnetic compass. During this time the wind rose gradually evolved into the compass rose on nautical maps. The compass rose continued to be a useful decorative feature on charts and maps for the next few centuries. It's likely that quilters were inspired by the varied designs used to depict the compass rose over time. The first known quilt to use the Mariner's Compass design was made in1726 in England. 2 Such quilts might well have been made earlier but we must depend on this first dated quilt for certainty.
It is unknown if this quilt from 1726 was even called a Mariner's Compass quilt as it was documented with a date but not a name. Many other quilts of this general pattern have been made over the years but only since the mid twentieth century was the name, Mariner's Compass, commonly used. Meanwhile quilts of this design have been named everything from Chips and Whetstones to The Explosion. Sun related names like Sunburst and Rising Sun were also common. The variations in the name of this quilt is good example of how difficult it is to uncover the history of any given pattern by name.
© 2003 Judy Anne Breneman
Thank you to The Quilt Complex for giving permission to display the top quilt shown on this page. Visit their site to discover the services they provide to museums, collectors, dealers, individuals, and quilt guilds.
Thank you to Judy Mathieson For the information and photos that added so much to this article. .1Judy Mathieson has also published the paper, "Some Sources of Design Inspiration for the Quilt Pattern Mariner's Compass", for the American Quilt Study Group journal. It can be found in "Uncoverings 1981"