Yesterday's Magazette

1 – Stitches In Time

Stitches In Time

By Madonna Dries Christensen

What is it about quilts that draw people to them?

Writer Ann T. Crahan says: Quilts conjure feelings of warmth and comfort, not just heat, but the warmth and security of Mom and Grandma and the love of generations of women nurturing women. [Cappers, Feb.24, 1998]

YM:Madonna:Stitches1In one form or another, quilts are as old as time. Cave dwellers patched together animal pelts for use as garments and blankets, often decorating them with intricate designs and symbols that told family stories. Elders in African tribes wrapped themselves in colorful shawls, a kind of coat of arms with geometric designs much like the shields, flags, and banners seen in medieval heraldry. Originally, these wraps were created by men, but 18th century American slave owners considered sewing to be women’s work, and so the legacy of feminine quilting took hold.

Mike Holahan, a writer, photographer, sailor, and history buff, treasures a quilt made for his great-grandmother Mulloy in the 1860s by three or four of her slaves. He says, “She got arrested for teaching her blacks to read and write. The Confederacy fell while she was in jail and the local minions of the law released her with an apology. The former slaves stayed around the farm long enough to finish their lessons and give her the quilt.”

Artist Kim McKinney’s paintings are inspired by folk lore surrounding “slave quilts.” Although some historians dispute the stories, the symbols used supposedly were codes to guide runaway slaves to the Underground Railway. Hung on clotheslines or in open windows as if being aired, the quilts conveyed messages saying this was a safe place to stop, or where food might be found. A wagon wheel said it was time to pack; a bear’s paw told them to follow the paths of bears foraging for food and water in the Appalachians on their way to the “crossroads” (Cleveland). Once in Cleveland, a log cabin seen on a quilt reminded slaves to gather in a secret outdoor gathering place, indicated by markings dug into the ground.

From yesterday’s sewing bees to today’s groups who make quilts to aid a cause close to their hearts, needlework has always brought women together in friendship and purpose. An international organization called the Binky Patrol provides handmade quilts and blankets to children in foster homes, abused children, young children facing serious medical problems, drug addicted babies and those born HIV positive. In Sarasota, Florida, the sewing circle of Palm Grove Mennonite Church holds an annual quilt sale, with twenty percent of the proceeds going to Haitian families supported by Mennonite missionaries. Hanging from rods reminiscent of old-fashioned clotheslines, the quilts’ kaleidoscopic patterns and array of colors dazzle the eye.

The vibrant needlework created by modern-day Mennonite women differs from the somber stitching done by their Amish sisters until about the 1940s. Under a law that discouraged ornament for ornament sake, the simple Nine Patch pattern was used by women to teach their daughters to quilt. Laid out in grids of nine, tic-tac-toe style, the fabrics were black, gray, mauve, magenta, purple, blue, green, and brown. Still they were pleasing to the eye. With lighter shades placed next to dark, the blocks presented abstract scenes as peaceful and orderly as Amish fields. As the sect formed new settlements and mixed with English neighbors and tourists, the women’s handiwork bloomed with color and creativity.

The crazy quilts pieced together by pioneer and Depression era women were rarely examples of intricate needlework, nor destined to become family heirlooms. They were functional, needed to ward off cold weather. In the summer, quilts were carted along to picnics, where they were spread on the grass like an extended table on which to set food. Later, folks stretched out atop the quilts for a nap under a shade tree, or to watch the children romp.

While chatting with relatives, a woman might absentmindedly caress each scrap of her family’s history. There’s Chet’s flannel pajamas with the airplane pictures, Ruth’s mauve taffeta prom dress, Grandma’s daisy print feed sack apron, Uncle Sid’s burgundy silk tie, several flowered handkerchiefs, the red velvet hair ribbon Sue got for her fifth birthday, Don’s wool navy uniform, Toby’s green corduroy knickers, a patch of ecru muslin cut in the shape of a child’s handprint (was it Willa’s or Clara’s?), and a triangle of Pa’s faded striped denim overalls, soft as a cotton boll from repeated washings.

Album Quilts from the 1800s are expensive to purchase, with dated ones bringing the highest prices. Album Quilts were team efforts, with each square made by a different person. Also called Presentation Quilts or Signature Quilts, they were given as wedding gifts or to a doctor, minister, or teacher in gratitude for service to the community. Many Album Quilts have survived in excellent condition because they were rarely used. Eleanor Laughlin owns one presented to her great-great-grandfather, Colonel Henry Haymond, in about 1880. Each square has the name or initial of the person who made it. Colonel Haymond, a Civil War veteran, wrote the town history of Clarksburg, West Virginia, in 1910.

Jill Buzby’s collection includes three crib quilts made for her by her paternal grandmother and a great-aunt. She enjoys quilts because, “They’re colorful, cheerful, and intricate, and because of their meaning. They represent a time when women were resourceful in using and reusing everything in the household, down to a tiny scrap of fabric. You can look at a family quilt and remember all the events connected to the fabrics in it. I picture a group of women sitting around someone’s living room at a sewing bee, gossiping and laughing while stitching love and friendship into a functional object.”

Martha Demerly says, “When I quilt, I feel connected to the past. I am reminded of my grandmothers who took pride in teaching me fine stitching. I treasure the thriftiness of using every piece possible; I recall the comfort of sleeping under a woolen quilt, and I rejoice in the simple prettiness of pieced blocks. As I work, a part of me always recognizes that my quilt will become another reminder of that heritage. I am creating a piece of the past for the future. I am also fascinated by the geometry of quilting; I know Euclid would enjoy watching his propositions work!”

Many of today’s quilts are so elaborate or meaningful in a particular way that they are exhibited in museums and galleries, or hung in homes as works of art. This amuses some quilters, who ply their needles for pleasure and for the domestic and personal tradition passed to them by their ancestors. The largest quilt ever displayed, and still growing, is the AIDS Memorial Quilt, with more than 44,000 panels, each symbolizing someone who died from AIDS. Like the Vietnam War Memorial and World War II’s Normandy cemetery, the AIDS Quilt illustrates the enormity of the number of lost lives.

Whether works of art or utilitarian, new or threadbare, quilts speak of longevity, stability, and continuity. Next time you’re under the weather, fetch a cup of hot soup and nestle under a quilt. Quite likely you’ll be transported back to a time when a family member tucked you in and brought you eggnog or hot chocolate and some tender loving care.

Quilts are stuffed with memories that nurture the soul and body.

For everything you want to know about quilts, I recommend quilt historian Patricia Cummings website: Look in her archives for a piece about slave quilt myths, mentioned above.

Vol. 36 No. 4 – Yesterday’s Magazette – Winter – 2009-2010


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