Quilts are Story Tellers

Making quilts for clients is always an enjoyable thing to do because they always have a story to tell. Sometimes those stories are told loudly in the unmistakable images on the t-shirts of a t-shirt quilt or sentiments written out for a guestbook quilt. But more often they whisper more softly in the treasured garments entrusted to me for a baby clothes quilt or a quilt to memorialize a lost loved on.

When working on any of these types of quilts I often find myself smiling as I get a sense of someone’s passions, their friends and family, or a love story. Recently I had the honor of making a memorial quilt as a holiday gift for a woman who had lost her husband earlier in the year. I was entrusted with shirts and ties that told the story of a man with a magnificent sense of humor. An intelligent guy that clearly used his wardrobe to ever so subtlety tell those around him that it was better to laugh than take things too seriously. Often these quilts will include a photo with the person’s name and life dates. For this one I made a braided heart block from 2 of his shirts and a phrase that meant a great deal to the couple as the center anchor block. The depth of their love story in that piece was unmistakable. But even with the whispers, the story was there.

But what about all those other quilts out there? The ones that are made in simple patchwork or some other selected block? Do they tell stories or are they simply expressions of necessity or creative outlet? The answer is Yes. Yes they are sometimes expressions of necessity. Yes, even in their simplest they are often a creative outlet. And Yes, they tell stories. And the rest of this post is about one particular quilt of the latter type. Before getting to that though a bit of background is important. Contrary to popular opinion not all women quilted “back in the day” and there was always a segment that did it because it was simply necessary. I have one in my collection that is made of large blocks, not at all carefully cut, and simply sewn together. Someone needed a new bed covering and it was done. I’ve read numerous histories as well that reference master needlewomen and those who didn’t wish to ever touch a needle while there were others who would happily knit their day away. It can be presumed that some hired others to do the work and some who traded the work of one skill for the work of their skills. But many did quilt and we can see remnants of their lives in the quilts they left behind.

This all wool quilt was made primarily from scraps and remnants. Although it does incorporate several family tartans including the full border done in the 5th set of rows from the embroidered center. The style is a take on traditional Welsh quilts. It is still centered with cotton batting and backing.

Most of the quilts we know those are made from cottons. While today quilters either select from their “stash” or go to their fabric fabric store and spend time carefully selecting the perfect collection of prints, it was far more often in days past for a quilter to go to their scrap bag first. That scrap bag often contained the “usable” portions of garments – shirts, dresses, etc – that were no longer serviceable as garments to wear. I recently completed a quilt for a client that was of this sort. She found most of the top at a shop while traveling in upstate NY and asked me to finish it for her. It appeared to date from the 1940s more or less and was clearly made from scrap bag treasures. The photo below is what I received.

This is a grandmother’s garden partially finished quilt top from the 1940s.

As you can see there are gaps that need filling at the corners. There were some centers included with the top to use to create more blocks to fill in those gaps. What isn’t so visible is that the rest of that fabric is clearly from scraps, house dresses, blouses, etc. The off white portions in between are not all the same fabric – some appears to be portions of bed sheets, there is basic muslin, and more. So to finish off the quilt I used the yellow centers and selected solids and prints in similar style and tone. Because of the age of the piece I conferred with the client and we decided to applique the whole thing to a large piece of fabric. This also helped to create the King size she wanted. As I worked on the piece there was a sense of simple joy that crept in. I mean it is a field of flowers so there is that but also you could see the original quilter’s love of floral prints in pretty colors. I chose a green fabric that had variations in the depth of color to create a sense of a flower garden in a field of green grass and bound it in the same bright yellow as the flower centers which just brought the sunshine to it. She stitched all of those blocks by hand suggesting that she enjoyed the process. While it is only imagination, it felt like I could sense her sitting on a porch stitching while children played or napped while enjoying her garden or the breeze of warm summer day. Maybe it was a way to pass the time while a husband was off serving in WWII. I don’t know but there are whispers of the past in the piece. Below are photos of the piece in progress.