Redecorating a room is a fun and exciting project. You pick out the paint, the furnishings, the floor cover. Then you set to work. But what if you have no money for a major remodel? In the 1930s and 40s, few had the spare funds for complete overhauls each year or two as the fashion changed. However, fabric gave homeowners one easy way to redecorate. In the kitchen nothing gave as much versatility as the humble potholder. Today we explore one possibility with the patchwork fan potholder.
During the Depression and for years afterward, crafters reveled in using every scrap of material so nothing went to waste. Little scraps of fabric became appliqué decorations on curtains, tablecloths, and dinner or luncheon napkins. Or they might find their way onto the corner of an apron or a handkerchief. Some scraps became part of that larger mosaic we call patchwork.
In the Thirties and Forties, needleworkers loved to make potholders. These were also known as pan holders. Potholders made great pickup work. This means that the worker could grab the project, or pick it up, during spare moments through the day or week. In fact, I finished the trim on this one while I was waiting for the morning coffee to reach a boil in the percolator.
Use the Cotton
When you make potholders, the fabric must be 100% cotton or you risk injuring yourself or someone else. Likewise, the lining needs to be 100% cotton batting, thick fabric layers, or a layer or two of Insul-Bright insulated batting. You can find it on Amazon here, if you don’t have access to it locally. These projects were designed for workers to use what they had on hand, without going to any extra expense. They were truly scrap projects.
It’s also a good idea to prewash your fabrics before you use them. Everything I used was a leftover from some other project, so it was all prewashed. You can see the strings on the dark brown fabric from being tumbled around a hot dryer. Potholders eventually end up in the laundry, and you don’t want yours to shrink.
Pair them up
Usually potholders appeared in pairs. With a pattern like today’s patchwork fan potholder, two fabrics usually switched places in the design. You can see that in the red pattern sketch, which dates from the 1940s. The polka-dotted fan plumes of one potholder become the ribs of the other.
This is a pattern I’ve had for a long time and always wanted to try. It was part of a stash from my husband’s grandmother. The pattern took up a tiny section of a large transfer sheet of embroidery patterns, and it caught my eye the first time I saw it.
I happened to have some tiny scraps of brown and batik that would work great together, so that’s what I used. First, I traced the pattern from the sheet. Usually these large sheets were designed to be cut. Then they were placed design side down onto fabric and ironed.
However, the way this pattern was placed makes it obvious that it was a trace-to-use pattern, even though nothing says that. The pieces overlap enough that cutting each one out to use them would be impossible.
The original instructions for this project included the red and white illustration above, plus these terse commands:
- These fan shaped pan holders can be made from any scraps of fabric you have available.
- Piece, pad, bind, and quilt.
That was it. Beyond that you’re on your own. So I thought I’d make one and give an idea how it goes together.
You can see from the sketch that the potholder is supposed to use six fan pieces. Well, I can’t count, apparently, because I cut and used seven. First I hand-sewed the two pieces of each fan blade together.
Each blade is sewn together on the diagonal in the middle, like the photo below. Sew right sides together and then press the seam toward the wide end.
Once all the pieces were assembled, I sewed them side by side and found another scrap of fabric to use as a backing.
I cut around the fan and used the backing piece as a pattern to cut the lining.
I sandwiched the three pieces together, and ran a stitch 3/8″ from the edge around all the edges. I used a sewing machine for this part, although you could easily do it by hand.
Then, because terry cloth tends to move while it’s squashed between two pieces of fabric, I had some edges to neaten before attaching the bias binding.
I made the binding myself from another scrap of brown fabric that I cut into 1 1/4″ diagonal strips and then sewed together. First I pinned the bias tape to the front of the fan and then sewed around it using a 1/4″ seam allowance. I started at the fan’s point. That way I could end there with a loop of extra bias tape that I then secured to the back of the fan with a few solid stitches.
Once the bias tape was attached to the front, I turned it over. Folding the tape over the raw edge, I sewed it down by hand all around the edge of the fan. This is what I did while the coffee brewed. When I got back to my starting point I cut off the bias tape, leaving a couple inches on the end. I turned under a little bit at the very end, and then folded it together and whipped the long open edges to make it a tube. Then I bent it into a loop and sewed the end onto the back of the fan at the point.
This makes its own hanging loop so I don’t have to hunt for crochet thread or a wooden ring.
Finally, I hand quilted all three layers together. Of course, you could use a sewing machine for any or all of this.
Now You Make One!
Here’s a copy of the pattern so that you can make yourself a pair of fan potholders (or pan holders, as you prefer.) I traced the pattern onto one 8.5 x 11 inch sheet of paper, and it took about half of it. This is not a large pattern.
I’ll dig out the fabric scraps I have left from this project and make another potholder to coordinate with the first one. I really enjoyed making this little patchwork fan potholder and I hope you make one or two to add a bit of Forties Flair to your kitchen.