The Land Of Counterpane

When I was growing up reading was an important part of the day.  Before we learned to read our parents read to us at bedtime.  One of my all time favorites was The land of Counterpane.


When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay,
To keep me happy all the day.And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.

I always liked counterpane, an old word for a bedspread, but I never knew its etymology, which is quite unexpected: it’s an alteration of earlier counterpoint (due to an association with obsolete pane ‘cloth’), but that counterpoint is an entirely different word from the one you’re thinking of—it’s from Old French contrepointe, which is an alteration of coultepointe, from Medieval Latin culcit(r)a puncta ‘pricked (i.e., quilted) mattress.’ That word culcit(r)a is the etymon of quilt, so counterpane should really be quiltpoint

Definition of COUNTERPANE

: bedspread , A cover for a bed, bedding


<a beautiful counterpane that was a family heirloom>


alteration of Middle English countrepointe, modification of Middle French coute pointe, literally, embroidered quilt

First Known Use: 15th century

Synonyms: bedcover (also bedcovering), bedspread, coverlet, hap [dialect], spread

Recently there has been an effort among quilt historians and collectors to further define what a counterpane is.  I find this amusing because the word covers a very broad range of textiles.  Any textile that is intended as a bed covering is by definition a counterpane.  Efforts to describe a specific type of bed covering as “the” counterpane are futile.  Some say that a counterpane is a non quilted, embroidered bed covering….true it is a counterpane, because it is a bed covering.  A trapunto whole cloth quilt intended as a bed covering is also a counterpane…because it is intended to be used as a bed covering.  A chenille bed spread for the 40’s is also a counterpane…because it is intended to be used as a bed covering.

Think of the word table.  We all know what a table is. A piece of furniture with a flat top and one or more legs, providing a level surface on which objects may be placed.  We also know that there are many types of tables:  Coffee table, side table, dining table.  Add in variations in materials, design, construction and period and there are literally thousands.  Would it make sense to try to define “the” table?I say that the word counterpane is the same.

The word counterpane seems cool to us now because it is generally out of use and therefore “historic”, (and makes you sound smart or “in the know” to use it.) but even if “experts” use the term in books to refer to a specific type of bed covering remember that is not the one and only item that is a counterpane.  The correct way to define a textile is to define it specifically, and if the term counterpane is used it should be used with a descriptive modifier:

A whole cloth quilted counterpane, A whitework embroidered counterpane.

Time for me to take a nap…My bed is covered with a hand quilted mid-century  improvisational patchwork counterpane…..sweet dreams



26 thoughts on “The Land Of Counterpane

  1. ginny buckles hardy says:

    what a beautiful old book!!!

  2. I love that poem, too. And this is a really interesting post – thanks!

  3. Regan Martin says:

    If you had been my history teacher…..I might have learned something! Beautiful illustrations from the book; thanks for including them. And what lovely memories of your childhood… be cherished, for sure!

  4. BRAVO!!!!!~
    You have a gift. It takes many forms…

  5. Rita Larson says:

    A great post as usual. I always look forward to what you have to share. When I was a child (40’s) my Grandmother used what she called counter panes in the summer. Pieced tops lined and bound, but no batting. It served as a bedspread. Today’s post brought back good memories. And what a treasure the book must be.

  6. Sara says:

    I’ve always loved that poem! A collection of counterpanes does sound so much better than a pile of quilts!

  7. My Iowa grandmother used the term counter pane when referring to the bed covering as well. I think it’s time to revive it.

    • timquilts says:

      Its a great word, makes one remember the past and it has begun to be used more in the quilt and textile history world, and I have no problem with that….as long as it used correctly 😉

  8. threadlore says:

    Nicely explained. Thank you for elaborating on the use of the term counterpane.

  9. mehitabel says:

    That was one of my favorite books of poems when I was young! I was kind of a sickly child so spent lots of time in bed reading, and this poem was really special since it was exactly what I was going through!

  10. cmosey says:

    I have that book! My dad used to read to me from it when I was little. And I made a quilt based on a poem from that… called “Windy Nights.” My favorite writer! Great post, Tim!

  11. realgffood says:

    My family also used the word counterpane. I grew up in a small town in PA and we used many “strange” words that I had to drop from my vocabulary when I moved to the big city. It turns out that many of those words were from Middle English. Thank you for the interesting information.

  12. realgffood says:

    An afterthought to my comment….It is too bad many of those words are disappearing from our vocabulary.


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