I’d be the first to tell you I’m not a quilter and unlikely to become one unless catastrophe requires me to recycle old clothing remnants into blankets to warm me or my loved ones in the cold of winter. While I don’t have patience to construct such intricate coverlets, I admire those who do. When our youngest daughter learned to quilt in a high school sewing class, I was thrilled she’d continue a family tradition that has waned since my great-grandmother last sorted through her ragbag to come up with pieces to create a lovely blue and red star heirloom that my mother treasures. While much of quilting is traditional and similar, like many other old time crafts, it, too, has changed with new technology and access to specialty stores.
When I examine older quilts, it’s clear the seamstress used up remnants of material or old clothing. Often times the design seems haphazard as the maker found ways to incorporate a prized child’s dress or shirt or a particularly lush piece of velvet or silk into a typically cotton or wool base. I feel like I can read the story of a family’s existence by running my fingers over these antiques at an auction or in a second hand store.
A simple patchwork quilt I once bid for and won was made of dark colored men’s suits and ties from the early part of the 1900s.What a thrill to move my fingers like they were reading braille from one block to another and feel the differences in the weights and weaves of summer and winter fabric. The quilter had also incorporated skinny and fat ties from different eras into this construction as well. She hadn’t intended to be artful. She’d meant to keep a body warm during a drafty plains winter while she used up scrap fabric. After sleeping under my prize, it was clear the seamstress had succeeded. In no time, I was toasty. As dull and plain as this was, I found it well stitched and lovely.
My own ancestor’s quilt is much the same. It is made of practical, fabrics that started as every-day clothing and ended up as a charming bed cover. When I look at the tiny stitches, I feel I know this long-dead woman who surely found herself each evening exhausted from raising a big family and helping to run a livery stable and boarding house in southwest Kansas. Somehow, she found time to make something useful and pretty out of rags.
Most quilts I see made today are every bit as lovely if not more so than their predecessors’ examples. The difference is that the quilter has visited a specialty shop to buy coordinated yards of fabric that please the eye and match a room’s decor. While the patterns may be intricate, new technology simplifies the cutting and stitching compared to those efforts of that woman decades ago who worked with simple tools by a flickering oil lamp.
A quilt display at the Dane G. Hansen Museum illustrated everything I’ve tried to express in this essay. As I walked from one presentation to another, I could see the differences between those made in the past from saved scraps and those constructed using modern techniques. Each one was beautiful in its own way. And, in case anyone is wondering, I wouldn’t turn down the gift of a quilt.