Electric Quilt is rereleasing Barbara Brackman’s Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns. In the new edition, each block includes a line drawing and a colored rendition to make identification easier.

Photos courtesy of Electric Quilt.

“It’s like a fairy godmother came to me and said, what do you want?” Barbara Brackman says about The Electric Quilt Company’s forthcoming rerelease of her book, Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns. The original edition, which Alex Anderson, co-host of The Quilt Show, has described as “the most valuable, helpful, and necessary quilt reference work ever written,” was published in 1993 and has long been out of print. Used copies sell online for upwards of $100.

Brackman has been anxious to update the book. The 1993 edition is all in black and white and its awkward page layout bugs her. She’s also come across 161 blocks additional quilt blocks.

Over the years she’s had conversations with multiple publishers about taking on the project, but plans always fell through when they fully grasped the scope of the task. The cost-benefit analysis of drawing 4,000 quilt blocks just never worked.

For quilt design software company Electric Quilt, though, this project was ideal. In fact, Brackman and Electric Quilt have been a perfect pair from the start.

An index meant to be digital

In the late 1990s, when Electric Quilt founder Penny McMorris was looking to create quilt software the obvious solution was to license the contents of Brackman’s book. McMorris digitally drew each block herself to create BlockBase, a comprehensive digital library of quilt bocks. The program quickly became Electric Quilt’s most popular product. “People just loved BlockBase,” says Sara Seuberling, Project Manager and Senior Designer at Electric Quilt. “It was just so easy to use. You select a block and click print.” Or, you could bring the block into EQ8, the company’s design program, and create your own quilt pattern with it.

Brackman loved the whole idea. Her father was a programmer for AT&T in the early days of computing. “He had a flow chart for making dinner. We knew when to put the baked potato in the oven because it was on the chart,’” she laughs. Seeing the blocks digitally indexed made total sense to her. “That’s what it really should have been in the first place,” she says.

In reality, though, the book had a much humbler start.

The rerelease includes a full-color illustration as well as a line drawing of each block. It also features 40 professionally photographed quilts made by Electric Quilt customers. 

A serendipitous discovery

Brackman began quilting in her 20s while working an intense job as a special education teacher at the University of Kansas. “I needed a hobby in the evenings where I could control things,” she says.

Her interest in quilting had been piqued a few years prior while in an art history class. She’d randomly pulled open a drawer in the back of a classroom and discovered a treasure trove: Carrie Hall’s 800 quilt blocks. She knew what they were because she had Hall’s book (published in the 1930s). She and some friends set about organizing and conserving the blocks.

But then Brackman began looking more closely at Hall’s indexing system. “I kept saying, I could do this better,” she recalls. “I thought, well, why not give every block a number? Then if I wanted to talk to somebody over the phone I could say, it’s block 2192 instead of trying to describe it. That was rather ambitious, but I’m kind of crazy,” she laughs.

She drew each block on an index card, noting its name, publication date, and number. Soon, friends asked if they could borrow the box of cards. So she created pages to photocopy and put in a 3-ring-binder. In 1993 the American Quilter’s Society took the contents of the binder and published it as a hard copy book and that became the Encyclopedia. (The original cards are now at the International Quilt Museum at the University of Nebraska.)

Two projects in one

Electric Quilt released BlockBase on floppy disks for Windows. Later they made it available as CDs, but still only for Windows. In recent years, they stopped selling BlockBase altogether, despite its popularity, because it badly needed an update and a Mac version. “We knew that would just be a huge overhaul for us to create so we really had to have the time to do it,” Seuberling explains. When they began the process in 2018, one of the first steps was connecting with Brackman.

“In order to recreate BlockBase we were going to have to go through and redraw every single block,” Seuberling says, “So we thought, why don’t we just republish the book? It seemed like the perfect fit for us.”

Throughout 2019 Ann Rutter and Jenny Novinsky redrew the blocks in EQ8, coloring each one in grayscale and in full color. It was a massive job, but one that allowed for both the rerelease of Brackman’s Encyclopedia this year and of BlockBase for both Mac and Windows in early 2021.

“We’re just so grateful that she wanted to do this, and that she allowed us to do this with her,” says Seuberling. “We’re just so honored to have the chance to do it.”

Although Electric Quilt has published manuals and a few books over the years, it was definitely a bit of an unusual undertaking for a software company to publish a 522-page book, but one they fully embraced. They secured a printer in Peoria, Illinois that did an initial print run of 5,000 copies. They’ll be warehousing the book themselves and working with distributors that serve independent quilt shops, as well as selling the book directly to consumers on the Electric Quilt website. Books will be ready to ship right after Thanksgiving, just in time for holiday gift-giving.

Lasting legacy

At 75, Brackman remains full of enthusiasm about quilting. She’s living life to the fullest, making the best of these isolated days during the global pandemic. “I haven’t been near a person that’s under 50 in months,” she says. Still, she’s managing to host her sewing group once a week for a socially distanced meetup on the driveway at her Lawrence, Kansas home “with the wind blowing our stuff all over the lawn.” And she’s learned to Zoom. She has a weekly cocktail party with friends who are quilters, curators, and collectors. To promote the book, she’s learning to do Facebook Live.

Brackman’s also got her eye on the future. “One thing I’ve always wanted to do is create an app where you could have your iPhone and just look at the block and it would tell you what it is,” she says. “So, that’s the next thing.”

Author Barbara Brackman is thrilled to see the book rereleased.

Update April 5, 2021: BlockBase+ has now been released as standalone software for both Mac and PC. It includes all of the over 4,000 blocks from Brackman’s Encyclopedia and allows the user to print templates, rotary cutting charts, foundation patterns, and reference images of every block at any size. BlockBase+ can also be linked with Electric Quilt 8 (EQ8) so that users can edit the blocks and create quilt designs with them. The software also includes the ability to export SVG files of the block templates or block image from BlockBase+. SVG files can be used with digital cutting machines, embroidery machines, 3-D printers, and more.

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