WILLY-NILLY (meaning, randomly, or "willingly/intentionally, or not") debuted in print in the syndicated quilt column by Nancy Page, on January 30, 1940 — the clip, illustrated left, is from the Hartford Courant. Page also had some personal folklore to add to the design, and which she shared in her column as follows:
"One time when I was traveling down south I saw a quilt with a pattern just like this. It was hanging outside a funny little cabin. When I stopped to ask whether I might copy it, I learned that the man who lived there was known as "Willy," so I called the pattern 'Willy-Nilly' because I was going to copy whether or no. But really he was extremely willing to let me make a quilt from his pattern. Just who had made the quilt seemed unknown to him."
Page's experience here is a wonderful reminder that the beauty of quilt designs is more than the patterns, it also involves much generosity on the part of the quilters. No quilt designs are ever copyrighted, even if the coverlet is sold for a huge price, or owned by a museum, it's all understood to be a tradition of random, hand-me-down, type sharing.
As regards the design itself, see Jinny Beyer's QUILTER'S ALBUM OF PATCHWORK PATTERNS, p. 102-11, in her section devoted to 8x8 blocks. But it also fits into an unusually beautiful, and unique category in Barbara Brackman's ENCYCLOPEDIA OF PIECED QUILT PATTERNS titled, "Pieced Block/Pieced Sashing," p.151, and thus comparable to other designs at this site such as:
ON THE SQUARE
AUNT MARY'S DOUBLE IRISH CHAIN
STORM AT SEA
ANTIQUE TILE BLOCK