Quilts & Time Machines

Last Sunday Connie and Courtney Willis stopped by for an early brunch after the Williamson Lectureship.  They were on their way home to Greeley, but stopped for an hour to visit and eat quiche with me.  Courtney collects antique sewing machines, and old slide rules, and because of his interest in sewing he has started making quilts.  Now, I can’t sew on a button so I wanted to get his opinion of the two quilts I inherited from my mother.  One was made by my grandmother, and the other by my grandmother.  Grandmother’s quilt has a pretty star pattern on it, but the material is starting to rot rather badly, and they are rather large pieces of fabric forming the stars and the wide lines between them.

Great-grandmother’s quilt was another thing all together.  It was what Courtney called a true “scrap quilt”.  Connie and Courtney were carefully inspecting the quilt, and their understanding of what they were looking at enabled me to finally “see” the quilt as a unique creation and not just a bundle of multi-colored material.  Courtney recognized certain material as the sacks that had once contained flour.  Back in the old days flour came in cloth bags with colorful prints on them.  There were tiny scraps of a pink fabric with little kittens on it that had clearly belonged to a little girl.  Had my grandmother worn the kitten dress?  There was another fabric that had clearly been a man’s shirt.

As we looked closer I was stunned at how nothing had gone to waste.  There was one tiny scrap no bigger then the fingernail on my little finger that filled out one tiny corner.  The stitches were these perfect tiny loops.  A woman had done this by hand with only an oil lantern if she was working at night or on a cold and gloomy winter day when she had to be inside.  Or maybe she’d been part of a quilting circle where these women in the Oklahoma territory had talked and shared dreams and fears and recipes and remedies.  I realized that each tiny piece of fabric told a story.  The stitches connected me to a woman who’s genes made up my body.  It was a silent story, and it touched me in a way I can’t explain.

I had been thinking about donating these quilts to some quilt museum, but I think I’m going to keep them, and even use them.  Yes, they will decay further, perhaps disappear, but if I put them on a bed and let people see them, and sleep under them it’s like I’m honoring my grandmother and great-grandmother’s lives and work.  I don’t have children so using them is probably the better choice then merely passing them on when I’m dead.  Those stories probably wouldn’t speak to anyone else.  I should let them sing now.

One Response to Quilts & Time Machines

  • Rebecca Hewett says:

    The more you look at them, the more you will see. They are wonderful things to meditate on. It’s one of the wonderful things about being a conservator. By the time I am finished working on something, I know it better than anyone else in the world. Often, I’ve been able to make some wonderful educated guesses about who made it, who used it, etc. It’s strange, but I have this amazing bond with it and I love it as a, whatever it is, and as a piece of art, and as a link to history, even just a small personal history that no one else will ever know. Often the most troublesome, difficult projects leave the strongest bonds with me.

    Something for you and your quilts. The pink kitten fabric sounds very much indicative of the 1930’s. Perhaps not your grandmother’s dress, but your mother’s dress and your grandmother’s way of remembering her as a little girl in the dress she made her.

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