Quilting is a lost art … or is it? Although Mama sewed ever since she was tall enough to peddle Grannie’s treadle sewing machine, she didn’t get interested in quilting until she retired. Yet, much like the pioneer women, she saved every scrap of material no matter how small. I inherited that trait. At first, she hand-pieced each square; and later went to machine-piecing. My mother always had several quilt tops going at one time. When each of her grandchildren married they received a finished quilt. As the great-grand’s came along, it was a given that they’d get a quilt and pillow for their nursery. For Christmas, we fairly well knew what our gift from Mama would be based on the events of our lives.
I hate to piece! Literally, hate it, but love to stitch a quilt. Mother’s stitches were so tiny and accurately spaced that you have to really look hard to tell a quilt she worked by hand over a machine piece. If you looked at mine, let’s just say you would definitely know the difference. Many times, an experience quiltmaker can date the quilt by the type of material used, the stitches, but more importantly, the patterns.
The art of quilting goes back to Ancient Egypt and the Middle Ages. Most likely the early items were created out of the necessity to keep warriors warm. Quilted bedding was probably created for the same reason. In Europe, during pre-colonial days, soldiers put away their heavy armor and wore padded, quilted clothing instead for protection.
In the 1700’s, wealthy ladies embroidered “throws” made of irregular pieces of silk, linen, and wool, now called Crazy Quilts. They used cutouts of imported chintz appliquéd to whole cloth, usually with a center design surrounded by formal placement of small designs cut from the same chintz. The oldest surviving American-made quilt dates back to this era. There are two housed in the Smithsonian.
Arriving in America with the colonialists, patchwork quilting as most of us are familiar with evolved into a uniquely American art form mainly because of the thrift and ingenuity of the pioneer woman. The patterns developed by these women reflected their day-to-day lives; their gardens, the sky, heroes of the day and battles. Or simply as a reflection of the beauty and grandeur of the new land. Many came about in honor of historic events, such as Lincoln’s Platform which commemorated the Lincoln-Douglas debates in the 1858 senatorial election.
Later, as the pioneer woman entered into new territories, her quilt patterns traveled with her. It became common practice to change the names to better reflect her new surroundings. Thus, many old patterns have been known by different names. Jacobs Ladder was originally called Road to California. The second version became known as Stepping Stones in New England and Virginia; The Tail of Benjamin’s Kite in Pennsylvania; Trail of the Covered Wagon or Wagon Tracks in the South and Midwest; the Underground Railroad in Kentucky; and Rocky Road to California or Rocky Road to Oklahoma. Sugar Loaf was derived from the days when sugar came in loaves wrapped in blue paper. Many times this quilt top was pieced using dark and light blues.
Scrap quilts were born of necessity. Several sources suggest that patchwork was a natural extension of mending and the mind-set of the frontier women who were forced to exercise frugality. Patching of clothing, and of course, bed coverings was a common and necessary technique. The idea of using saved scraps of materials in piecing was also natural to the Puritan and frontier mentality of thrift, utility, and economy. Although it’s also one of the most difficult patterns, Grandmother’s Flower Garden is still a favorite of quiltmakers because it uses up huge quantities of small scrap pieces.
Grandmother’s Flower Garden
The Log Cabin was probably the most popular quilt pattern ever devised. It is a scrap design. The only rule seems to be that the center square be red.
After the Industrial Revolution (mid-1800’s), materials had become affordable and available enough that fabrics were bought specifically for the purpose of making a quilt, thus the birth of patterns that had repeating patterns. The housewife was no longer dependent upon the accumulation of scraps of different colors, sizes, and patterns in her scrap bag to create a specific pattern or design. She could now repeat a pattern in a particular color of fabric to carry out a desired color scheme. Typically they were pieced together using squares, rectangles, and triangles. Later, with the invention of the locked stitch sewing machine, more fanciful designs were developed.
During the Depression, feedbag prints became popular. As a promotional gimmick, the companies that sold products in cotton bags such as flour, sugar, and chick feed made these bags of printed fabrics. Being practical, women looked for the prettiest fabric, and made clothing from the feed sacks, using the left over scraps for quilts.
We lost Mama on August 28, 2004, with fast moving lung cancer. When Christmas came around, we weren’t exactly prepared to find that she’d left each of us a present in her bedroom closet, all wrapped and ready to open … a finely pieced and stitched quilt. Well, for almost everyone … mine was two pieced quilt tops because she didn’t have time to finish them before she got ill. And, yes, it’s crossed my mind that she may have deliberately given me the tops as her way of reminding me how many times I said, “I love to stitch, but hate to piece.” The truth, knowing her, I’m surprised I didn’t get a box of quilt squares cut, penned and ready to piece together as payback for smart-mouthing her. The quilt tops were the best Christmas present I have ever received in my life.
When my precious mother-in-law came to live with us for her final days, I finished stitching the Philadelphia Pavement during the hours Lola and I sat and talked. She passed away August 26, 2008. After she left us, I took the finished quilt over to a seamstress and she added the name and birthday of my husband and me at one end, and at the other she stitched both of our mother’s and father’s names, birth dates and the dates they died. Down each side are the names and birthdays of our two daughters and beside them are their children. Ironically, Mama had patterned in the exact number of blocks to include everyone.
I’ve been stitching on the other quilt top Texas Star for years, and I’m not sure I’ll ever finish. I’ve never seen so many triangles in one pattern in my born days. I’m pleased to say that my oldest two teenage granddaughters have taken interest in quilting and so far we’ve worked together on a number of smaller projects. Emma and I pieced and stitched a little boy quilt for her brother. Abigail, with the help of her mother, made me a lap quilt last Christmas, and they are both currently working on throw pillows … all in preparation for the “big” quilt! Unless my fingers stay nibble enough to finish Texas Star, that might be their first major project.
I salute the generations of American women who, in spite of technological advances, took such pride to keep the art of quilting alive and preserved this rich heritage for us. Do you have a favorite quilt or quilt story to share?
You can find a fascinating website with the timeline of quilting in America at http://www.reddawn.net/quilt/timeline.htm.