Needles and Thread, Part III: Grandmother’s Quilts

Needles and Thread, Part III: Grandmother’s Quilts (part of my Blowing on Embers series)

My maternal grandmother, like most rural mountain women of her generation, was a prolific quilter. Her quilting frame was hung from the dining room ceiling where it could be raised and lowered by pulleys. It made her home the perfect place for a quilt-making gathering, but she would have been worried to pieces having outsiders in the way, so quilting bees were limited to family members.

When I was about nine years old, I was the recipient of one of those quilts. It featured the Little Dutch Girl pattern: a little girl in profile with her flared dress, a big sunbonnet hiding her face from view, and equally big shoes—wooden clogs, no doubt. In each square, the girl’s outfit was multi-hued, each square’s color combination different from the ones around it.

The colorful quilt served as my bedspread for several years, on the same antique cherry bed that had been my mother’s. She had restored it when she was a teen as part of a 4-H Room Improvement project which earned her a blue ribbon at the North Carolina State Fair. That same bed was used by my daughter when she was a girl and then by her own daughter.

Unfortunately, the quilt was not quite so long-lived as the bed, now more than 150 years old. While not exactly ephemera, quilts were made to be used. My Little Dutch Girl quilt was well-used, first by me and later by my daughter. It wore out.

By the time I learned to appreciate my quilt for both its personal and cultural heritage, it was too threadbare, stained, and torn to save it. But I couldn’t toss it. A few years ago, I cut the quilt into its squares and framed the few that weren’t too stained or frayed. One I gave to my mother, one I kept for myself; others I stashed away for children and grandchildren.

Now I’ve inherited a few more of Grandmother’s quilts. Unlike my girlhood quilt, I treat these with great respect. I don’t tuck them away where they can’t be appreciated, but I’ve learned not to expose them to daily use and abuse atop beds, either. These quilts hang side by side over a bedroom railing. Like MaMa’s Civil War bedspread, they are always on view and always available to provide extra cover on chilly nights—when they warm both body and soul.

I love these old quilts made by my grandmother, and I’m fascinated by the study of them. Her stitches were exquisite and her squares, large or tiny, were precise. But Grandmother didn’t exercise the same kind of care in other aspects of her quilt making. (Mother was right.)

Precision was not what you’d expect to find within Grandmother’s squares. One little Dutch girl’s profile, for instance, might vary from those around it. One’s shoes may be a little larger or smaller, while another’s might drop off the square entirely. Grandmother carelessly arranged colors. With Grandmother’s quilts, it’s not unusual to spot an aqua square somewhere in a row of royal blue ones. Or, you may find a wool or satin piece of fabric mixed in a row of cotton squares.

This quilt contains 148 border squares. 146 of them are black. The other two look like this.

Notice the random color placement of the “petals” in this quilt square. Can you spot the petal that was pieced together?

Whether it was plain old sloppiness, a preference for form over function, poor planning, or the “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without” philosophy stated on one of her many cross-stitched pieces, these little details simply didn’t seem to matter to Grandmother. And one thing’s for sure—her quilts are unique; they’ll never be mistaken for anyone else’s.

Among other fabrics, Grandmother used a red-checkered tablecloth, printed flour sacks, and old children’s pajamas to make this quilt.

Grandmother was a giggler and she kept me in stitches. Even now, looking at her quilts makes me chuckle. I think she’d have wanted it that way.

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