Being a quilt-maker, my home is filled with quilts — finished quilts and quilts in progress. My first full-size quilt was made when I was 21 years old and within a few years, I knew that I had found a lifelong hobby. Like so many other quilt-makers have discovered, the process and the finished quilt is relaxing and exciting, beautiful and yet pragmatic.
My Mother was a quilter, and my Grandmother before her. My Grandfather’s twin sister was also a quilter and she made money selling her hand-stitched quilts in the backwoods of West Virginia. Two of my sons made small quilted wallhangings and now one of my Granddaughters wants to learn how to sew and quilt. Quilting has become a family tradition and since quilts have a special beauty and functionality in a home, passing the quilts and quilting tradition on through the family is a personal pleasure.
A useful, even beautiful, handmade quilt crafted from bits of cloth that once served another purpose can keep someone warm or comfortable when needed. A quilt might not even be made for warmth but for a design element in a decorated room. No matter what the purpose, most people are drawn to a handmade quilt. Many of us have family ties to quilting and there are family stories about gift quilts or old quilts that have been passed down through the generations.
Quilts are an American beauty.
Quilts serve so many purposes — they can be constructed as a Summer throw, or as a quilt to ward off Autumn’s chill, or even as a thick comforter quilt to warm the body on a cold Winter night. The thickness of a quilt and the quilt’s ability to provide warmth depend upon the filler — the inner quilt batting. Batting can be cotton, a cotton blend, wool, or polyester. Quilt batting can also be made of silk, although silk is very expensive and very thin.
Quilts can also contain unusual filler material like an older, worn quilt. I have two quilts that contain older quilts and was intrigued at my discovery. But I am not interested in tearing apart the newer quilt that covers them just to find the inner quilt. Here is one of those quilts, an antique quilt made with the patchwork design known as Churn Dash:
Quilts were fairly common in early America but true patchwork quilts first became popular in the 1800s. This style of quilt design is still popular with quilters. Patchwork quilts were originally made as a way to use discarded and worn out clothing. These quilts were meant to be functional as blankets but their patchwork designs and beauty did not go unnoticed. Made from fabric scraps left over from sewing and gathered fabric bits, scraps and strips, many patchwork quilts became works of beauty.
Quiltmakers today still use traditional patchwork quilt designs that were popular in the 1800s. These are my own scrappy Nine Patch scrap blocks:
So the large Nine Patch quilt was made with patchwork scraps — small 2-inch squares of scrap fabrics added to squares of a basic white fabric. A few of those fabrics came from blouses that I had worn in high school. Yes, quiltmakers keep fabric scraps stashed away for decades. :-)
Scrappy patchwork quilts begin with leftover cotton fabrics from the scrapbasket, or from fabrics that have been handed down or given to the quilter. Traditionally, quilts were made with scrap fabrics or remnants of cloth. Fabrics were traded among women and even remembered as once being a shirt or a dress.
Quiltmaking goes well with frugality and a person’s interest in saving and recycling. Many quilters enjoy knowing that their art (or craft) has come from frugal beginnings. Fabrics are also purchased for quilt-making, although most patchwork quilts have been made from scraps and leftover sections of fabrics originally purchased for clothing. This Pinwheel quilt was made with scraps and leftovers but the outer border cotton fabric was purchased:
My favorite quilts have always been patchwork quilts made with scraps of fabrics. Patchwork quilts — the scrap quilts — stitched from leftover fabric scraps or bit of cotton salvaged from an old shirt or dress are the quilts I appreciate most.
Most patchwork tells a story that can include the origin of the fabrics, the choice of the patchwork designs used, or even the quilting designs stitching the quilt layers together. Antique patchwork has appealed to me so much that I have purchased quilts needing repair, unfinished antique tops, and antique patchwork blocks to finish. They have always been a real joy to stitch and there has been a sincere appreciation when repairing or completing the handwork of a quilter from yesteryear.
A quiltmaker’s ability to transform fabric scraps into patterned beauty has spanned centuries. A patchwork quilt, born of necessity, provides the quiltmaker with a means to practice frugality while also enjoying the art and craft of home decoration.
Through women’s diaries left behind and our old history books, we learn that quiltmakers of long ago had a special connection with fabrics. Alice Morse Earle (1851-1911), the first American historian to chronicle everyday life in the Colonial era, wrote:
The feminine love of color, the longing for decoration, as well as pride in skill of needle-craft, found riotous expansion in quilt-piecing. A thrifty economy, too, a desire to use up all the fragments and bits of stuffs which were necessarily cut out in the shaping, chiefly of women’s and children’s garments, helped to make the patchwork a satisfaction. The amount of labor, of careful fitting, neat piecing, and elaborate quilting, the thousands of stitches that went into one of these patchwork quilts, are to-day almost painful to regard…
A sense of the idealization of quilt-piecing is given also by the quaint descriptive names applied to the various patterns. Of those the “Rising-sun,” “Log Cabin,” and “Job’s Trouble” are perhaps the most familiar. “Job’s Trouble” was simply honeycomb or hexagonal blocks. “To set a Job’s Trouble,” was to cut out an exact hexagon for a pattern (preferably from tin, otherwise from firm cardboard); to cut out from this many hexagons in stiff brown paper or letter paper. These were covered with the bits of calico with the edges turned under; the sides were sewed carefully together over and over, till a firm expanse permitted the removal of the papers. (1)