The geometry of Margaret Cabell McClelland’s quilt captivated me. I had wanted to make a red and white quilt since the 2011 New York City exhibit, “Infinite Variety.” Labyrinths in quilts, stone, corn, and snow are popular today, but finding one in an 1850s quilt surprised me. It was an easy choice, but not an easy quilt.
Margaret created an original maze, or puzzle with pathway choices. I became lost when I tried to reproduce her maze. I chose a more symmetrical labyrinth. When I examined a Hmong appliqué, I realized the technique suited my purpose.
Margaret’s maze purportedly was based on the labyrinth floor of French Amiens Cathedral. The original floor, dating from 1288, was torn out in 1827, but replicated in the 1890s. The center stone documents in poetry the date of the cathedral’s beginning and completion, names three architects, acknowledges the bishop who commissioned it, and notes Louis IX was King. The quilt reflects the Greek Revival style popular in the USA from 1820 to 1850. Greek designs were used to indicate pride in independence and democracy. Garden mazes were part of the era’s landscape design. Margaret’s childhood home in Virginia had a boxwood maze.
I learned about labyrinths as I examined her quilt motifs. Instead of Margaret’s Greek key, I used a meander on the border. A meander forms a labyrinth by lining units up, arranging them on a grid, or by stacking units and then stretching them around like silly putty until the sides meet in the center. The corner motifs or “seeds” reminded me of old stone forts. If four are set back to back against a cross, the points can be connected cleverly to draw a simple labyrinth. Such labyrinths are distributed around the world.
Labyrinths were said to form protective walls around ancient cities. The hexagons on Margaret’s quilt represent fortification locations where invaders were vulnerable as they rounded a sharp corner. Likewise, the crenellations on her strip border marked fortifications. Margaret may have been well versed in military history; her great-grandfather, grandfather, father, and son had military careers.
Labyrinths also are used in processions and dances. For instance, a traditional Latvian dance has participants join hands in a long line to follow a leader in an elaborate circular path that enables dancers to greet everyone else as they pass. The “Dancing Path” simulates a Baltic labyrinth.