An American Quilt

Last night the old quilting club got back together for the first time. Nine older ladies gathered in Denise’s living room in rural West Virginia. They sat in a big circle, just like women did in days of yore. They had a kind of socially-distanced quilting bee.

The group welcomed a new member into the fold. Andrea, who is 14 years old. She was the youngest in a roomful of women who were all over age 70.

The first thing anyone should know about quilting is that a quilt is NOT just a blanket. The women are clear on this. Especially not a patchwork quilt. Miss Denise, who founded this group 21 years ago, describes a quilt like this:

“It’s like building a four-bedroom house with a needle.”

Miss Denise remembers her first solo quilt when she was 12 years old. She worked on it for a solid year using scrap material salvaged from her father’s old clothes. She remembers laboring on this quilt while listening to the Everly Brothers sing “All I Have to Do Is Dream” on a record player.

“I’ve been quilting for a long time,” she says quietly.

On average, a large patchwork quilt takes about 100 hours to complete. Some quilts move quicker; others take longer. Either way, there is a lot more than just needlework involved in constructing the Great American Quilt.

Denise tells me there’s planning, drawing, gathering, cutting, arranging, sewing, fixing mistakes, binding, and constantly repouring glasses of wine.

“Yes, wine,” says Denise. “That’s an important part of our little club. I like the pink wines best. I’m Methodist, we’re allowed to drink.”

The art of quilting is believed by some to date back to 3400 B.C. And to give you an idea of just how old that is: the Sahara Desert began to form around this period.

The pharaohs used quilts. There is also evidence of quiltwork in ancient Asia. Medieval knights and men-at-arms wore quilted underwear beneath their armor.

Quilts in America probably arrived first during the 1500s, within the berths of square-rigged Spanish ships. By the 1700s, European colonists had made quilting our national pastime. Nearly all early American households had at least one heirloom quilt.

But it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that female American settlers took the simple craft of patchwork quilting and elevated it into a veritable artform.

No other people group has contributed more to patchwork quilting than the American woman. Quilting became what homesteading women “did.” The practice of making a quilt was entertainment, a way to recycle fabric, a social event, it was a way to unwind before an open hearth.

Headstrong women from nearly all ethnic groups, with their roughened hands and callused fingers, patched quilts together from swaths of old canvas, empty flour sacks, stockings, and any rags they could find.

Many classic patterns from their era are the same patterns still widely used today. Patterns with olden names like “Churn Dash,” “the Four Patch,” “the Nine Patch” and the “Roman Stripe.”

The women in my own family were quilters. My mother quilted. So did her ancestors. In fact, in my hall closet I have one such rag quilt made by my great-great-grandmother.

To modern eyes this quilt is a visual disaster. There are no two fabric patches that go together. There are ugly purples, chicken-vomit greens, faded pinks, material from old sugar bags, scuffed denim, and shreds from wagon tarps. It’s an eyesore. But to my family it is precious.

Because here’s the thing. This quilt is probably about 150 years old. And here’s something else that requires all caps: THIS QUILT IS STILL IN GOOD SHAPE.

One hundred and fifty years of daily wear and the thing still works. Show me another household item that is half as durable not including pet rocks.

The oldest woman in Denise’s quilting group is Wilma (age 88). I called her this morning to ask a few questions.

She says her hands are gnarled with arthritis, but she can still operate scissors. Wilma recently received a vaccine and feels comfortable rejoining the group after a long year.

Wilma says, “I learned to quilt when I’s 9 years old. Mama always quilted, so did Granny. It was just what we did back then.”

Then she tells a story:

“For lotta generations, girls in Mama’s family would start sewing squares with a needle at, oh, guess around age 9.

“They did this each night till they had them a bunch of squares saved up. Mostly old family patterns from old Ireland and Scotland and such.

“Well, once a girl got engaged, she’d get her squares out and start piecing them together to make herself a big marriage quilt, and this quilt is what would cover her bridal bed.

“On Mama’s wedding night, Daddy would’ve seen Mama’s marriage quilt for the first time. And he wasn’t just seeing a quilt, you understand, he was seeing Mama’s whole girlhood.”

Wilma says the antique quilt still exists in her family. Not long ago, the heirloom was passed down to her grandchildren. And it gave Wilma great pleasure to point to certain squares and say, “See? my mama did this one when she was your age.”

At the end of her story, I ask Wilma why, after all these years, she still loves to help make patchwork quilts.

“Oh,” she says. “I think it’s just a woman’s way of taking ugly old things and refitting them together to be pretty again. Sort of like God does with people.”

I’ve been sitting here for 10 minutes trying to think of a better closing line than that. But I can’t.


  1. Patty Kerns - July 8, 2023 10:06 am

    I read your stories every day. I look forward to each and every one. I especially like todays story about quilters. You see I am a quilter. I am 64 ( just had a birthday). I have been quilting for about 20 years now. I started when my son was a senior in HS I had been sewing since middle school I learned in home Economics class. You know back when girls took home ec and boys to shop. I belong to a quilting group in my area call Haymarket Quilters Unlimited. We promote quilting education and are very involved in community service donating to many local organizations. The best things about our organization are the friendships, support and inspiration one can find there. With in this group I am in a smaller group known as a Bee. Yes there are still quilting bees. We have 7 quilters in our bee. We call our group Bee Haven. I just love this group of women we get together weekly. I’m rambling sorry.
    You really captured the quilter. My favorite line you wrote was that A QUILT IS NOT JUST ANOTHER BLANKET. To a quilter calling a quilt a blanket is not only cringe worthy it also deems the individual not quilt worthy. Meaning no quilts for you! When someone refers to a quilt as a blanket I try to educate them on the difference
    I find working with fabrics and creating quilts relaxing and comforting. On my most stressful days if I go into my studio and work with fabric I feel the stress melt away. One of my favorite things to do is make quilts out of a loved ones clothing as a memory and a way to keep them close. I lost my father 3 yrs ago and my husband of 40 yrs the following year. I took my fathers dress shirts, he had a lot, and made quilts for my mother and my 3 brothers. I really enjoyed that process I felt close to my father and remembered him wearing the shirts. I’m doing the same with my husbands shirts for my kids and grandkids. I am grateful for the craft of quilting and the sisterhood of quilters. Thank you for your stories.

    • Janet - July 8, 2023 12:47 pm


      I did not take home ec. I was going to be an engineer. And I was. But the geometry of patchwork and the pure joy of the fabric brought me to quilting 11 years ago. My bee is called Quilt N Peace. There are 15 to 20 of us on any week and I love these women and their collected wisdom, about quilting, faith and everything.

      Another great column.

  2. Cate - July 8, 2023 1:42 pm

    Your column today reminded me of a story I heard years ago about slave quilters. Back when slave holding was still the practice in the south, the slave women would make quilts and hang them in the yard. Runaways would see them and know which way to go to find the underground railroad because the quilters would put directions in the patterns of the quilts. The accuracy of this story is unknown but might be worth a little research. Thank you for the joy you give each of us each and every day.

  3. Becky Souders - July 8, 2023 10:09 pm

    As a quilter of 45 years, I thank you, Sean Dietrich.

  4. Karen Cardenas - July 9, 2023 3:36 pm

    My best friend taught me to quilt when I was in college. For years, we would sit together on Wednesday nights for an hour or two and work on our respective quilt projects.

    I don’t get time to quilt as much anymore these days, but now that my children are older, it’s a pleasure I’m excited to get back to.

    And I don’t think there could have been a better last line. Good call to leave it at that!

  5. Karen - July 9, 2023 10:59 pm

    Really enjoyed your commentary and the subsequent comments. I’m a relatively new quilter having started after I retired at age 60 in 2007. I quilt with a very special group of ladies at a local Sr Citizen Center. We call ourselves the Peace by Piece quilters. My maternal grandmother quilted and I’m blessed to have two of her quilts. One, made for my dad in the ’60s, was made with polyester knits to keep him warm when he went hunting. It’s not a beautiful quilt, not even pretty but very warm! The other is a postage stamp quilt made from hundreds of 1″ squares in the 50s-60s, made from scraps of fabric of homemade clothes. I can look at it and pick out pieces of clothing that my mother and grandmother made for me most of my adolescent years. Both are near and dear to my heart. I’ve made close to 40 quilts for myself, family and friends in the 16 years I’ve been quilting. Pieced, appliqued, hand, tied, or machined quilted, I enjoy any and all kinds! Baby quilts, wedding quilts, even table toppers and runners. l have made quilts for all my children and grand children and starting on those for the 5 great grands! I probably enjoy the hand work the most, whether it’s hand quilting, applique, or finishing the binding, I call it my “therapy!” It’s very therapeutic to sit and sew….and completely satisfying when completed!

  6. M Van oostrum - July 10, 2023 2:58 am

    My quilt group is called Prayers and Squares. We make lap quilts for ill or grieving folks in our community. I started making quilts about 10 years ago with a goal of 17 for each of my grandkids. I have finished over 40 now . I loved geometry in school and find quilting to be very relaxing, mathematically challenging and great fellowship. We gals need the same fellowship our greatgrands needed and enjoyed. So glad I found this hobby. PS. I can’t read every day but I love your columns so very much!

  7. F. Michele Templeman - July 13, 2023 2:53 am

    Our quilting group is called Quilt Mafia. Our goal is to help members of our group finish quilts they gave not or can not finish on their own. Our youngest member is 45 and still works. Our oldest is 93 and still drives. She is in charge of lay out and pinning. I’m kind of in the middle at 69 and one meeting a month I teach new easier ways to do traditional block . we gave just finished a donation project for a local nursing home of 40 lap quilts since January if this year. Destashing was the key watch word for this project. Total spent out if pocket is less than $50.00. It is really helping our sewing rooms look a lot better

  8. Joyce Jackson - July 13, 2023 10:58 pm

    Enjoyed the story of quilting very much. My mother taught me how to quilt when she was age 92. So glad she did. It’s addictive. I have made 3 quilts for married children, 5 quilts for grandchildren, 5 Quilt of Valor for our Veterans (what an honor to do that) 4 wall hangings , 1 award winning quilt of my own and several quilts for my girlfriends. My mom has now passed but she would be so pleased to see that I’m still carrying on this age old tradition. I’m now on the lookout for wedding fabric for my granddaughters
    Wedding.Next will come baby quilts (ha-ha)
    Thank you

  9. Nann - July 17, 2023 10:58 pm

    A friend shared your column. I enjoyed your comments. I just finished reading Quilt of Souls by Phyllis Biffle Elmore — a memoir of her quilt maker grandmother whose wisdom touched so many lives.


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