Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Provincial Portrait: The Quilter

Grandma and I
(I was exceptionally photogenic at a very young age)

It was a quintessential childhood scene: Grandma at her card table, encompassed in cloth, the light glancing silver off her bent head. Her soft, manicured hands made deliberate stitches through the large, wooden hoop that they held. The occasional child nestled in among the ample folds and patterns that tumbled from her lap. There were many children, nearly a dozen at times--some her own, but mostly those she watched for others. Sometimes, we tried to help, with thimbles precariously balanced on tiny finger tips. Other times, Grandma’s material became the enclosing canopy of a painted fortress.
“That’s the way it was. I could quilt and you kids were so good,” she said with a smile. “Sometimes, especially those little boys would get under the quilt and they’d get rambunctious and I’d have to say, ‘Don’t pull my quilt!’” She chuckled softly, displaying an impressive depth of patience for such antics.

My grandmother quilted for over forty years. “[I started sewing] when I was in high school,” she explained. “Mom would be quilting and I would want to learn. I would sit there and do the stitches and she would tell me, ‘You’ve got to do smaller stitches!” As she spoke, the remnants of a Tennessee drawl softened the edges of her words. Where she came from, everyone quilted. A common rural saying of the time underscored this:

“At your sewing do not tarry
First you quilt and then you marry.”

Her first quilt was finished soon after marrying, and she has now completed more than she can count. Over thirty, at least. Many are now enclosed in the sturdy oak cupboard skillfully built by my grandfather’s carpenter hands. She led me to the dimly lit room where it stood. One after another unfurled from the treasure chest, woven jewels of soft pastels tumbling in traditional geometric patterns: Tennessee Waltz, Double Wedding Ring, Texas Star, and the Dalia--a masterpiece of striking complexity and radiant amethyst tints. The mound of material towered remarkably high, yet the majority of her work was missing. Given away as gifts, most of her quilts were scattered throughout the homes of nearly every family member.

In the room down the hall, a cedar chest held the quilt her grandmother made in the early 1900s. The folds of the quilt were nestled among child toys and toddler shoes, faded with age and wafting of cedar. She gently pulled the heirloom from its time guarded enclosure. Outstretched, the navy and white arrangement tumbled haphazardly across its surface, accurately illustrating the pattern’s title of “Drunkard’s Path.” Grandma ran her fingers lightly down the worn seams, her touch of the fabric connecting more than a century of family quilting. Her own quilts now cover the beds of her great-grandchildren.       
"Drunkard's Path," hand sewn by my great-great-grandmother

The process of making the quilts was rather simple. She chose patterns and materials according to what struck her fancy; generally, pastels were her colors of choice--pale peaches, delicate yellows, and gentle lilacs. Sometimes, she chose a pattern from her worn copy of Let's Make a Patchwork Quilt! Occasionally, Grandpa would design one for her. On hands and knees, she stretched out a sheet for the backing on the floor, then the batting over that, and lastly a top layer of carefully pinned pieces. All three layers were then set in her wooden hoop, or plastic square, which held the fabric tight as she worked. Using stencils, she sometimes traced designs along the edges, in corners, and in empty squares. Swirls of leaves, circular wreaths, and undulating borders were painstakingly and perfectly applied, stitch by stitch. The result of such diligent labor was breathtaking.

When asked about the lost art of quilting, and why few people these days are taking up the old handicrafts, my grandmother paused. “They’re movin’ too fast,” She said. “They don't have that relaxing time. That was so relaxing for me to sit and do those quilts. Some, I would work eight hours a day...not every day. It was just something I liked to do.” She reflected, then continued, “I could sit in there and [your grandpa] could watch his television and we could talk… If I got any leisure time, I want to spend it with him.”

My grandma does not quilt much anymore; her eyesight is not quite what it used to be. Yet, all around I see handmade representations of her love, gifts wrapped in calico diamonds and red polka-dot squares. Blessings that will keep you warm, both in heart and home, and last a lifetime. And I think to myself: it can’t be that hard. I have some thread and some children for my lap.


  1. Congratulations on your blog. Your writing is truly descriptive.

    Your grandfather is my uncle.

    1. Thank you! I was given some of your books recently. My daughters have truly enjoyed the two on watermelons!