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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Gray Matter: Quilts and Quilting

Monday, February 27, 2006

Many reasons have been suggested for the modern  fascination with quilting -- that ancient craft which has been around since the time of the Egyptians.  It's been  said that it is good for us, in our highly mechanized world, to try doing something of this sort, just as our forbears did it.   In this way, it is claimed, we are able to sense a bit of what it  was really like living in those earlier simpler days. I like that idea.

Now, I am not a quilter.  In the first place, I am truly handicapped when it comes to anything demanding finger dexterity, but I am full of admiration (almost envy) for my friends who do that sort of thing.  Where I can join them, is in delighting in the stories that often accompany the quilts, especially the older ones.  Here are a few of the stories I've collected over the years.

As I entered a show some years ago, two truly spectacular quilts caught my attention.  The first was an appliqué in subtle shades of peach and green; the other, a magnificent Prairie Star in striking pastels.  These very modern-looking quilts had been made, many years ago, by a woman who was almost a legend in our community. 

When she was little more than a girl, she had ridden alone, on horseback, to stake a claim in the Dakotas.  She built her own shack, broke the land, and stayed long enough to prove her claim.  Then she returned to teach rural schools here in Iowa for years.  A great teacher, but strict, she was always remembered as being very stern and formal.  Now, after all this time, the evidence was clear --  inside that tough exterior there lived the romantic heart of an artist.

Another time, a solid piece of gleaming burnished-gold fabric which was intricately quilted, demanded an explanation.  There I learned that when rayon, the first man-made fabric, was introduced, circa 1930, women used plain pieces of it to display their elegant stitchery.  More amazing than the actual quilting, was the edging, done with the tiniest stitches I have ever seen, each so precise that not a single variation, could be detected by the naked eye.

The sad story of a lovely Fancy Flowers quilt, done in soft blues and earth tones, revealed the sort of therapeutic value it might have provided for one late-nineteenth-century mother.  She had pieced it from the favorite dresses of her 11-year-old daughter who had died of diphtheria.  We can only imagine  the uncountable tears that accompanied the stitches going into that loving work.

There does seem to be emotion, ranging from deepest sadness to the greatest joy, sewn into so many of those old quilts.  One I vividly remember  seemed to echo a sort of frustration that fell somewhere between those two emotional extremes.  It seems this quilt maker was the mother of four sons--no daughters.  Early in the last century she had used her skills to fashion shirts for these lads.  I could almost feel for her as the opportunity  never came for her  to sew pretties for her family.  Resourcefully, she finally chose a lovely delicate blue fabric for a softly feminine quilt, into which she carefully incorporated every one of those utilitarian blue striped shirt scraps -- truly ingenious !

There's still another tale of a  remarkable collection of quilts belonging to a friend of mine which I know you would like to hear, but once again I find I'm running out of space.  I will tell you that lovely story sometime soon.