An American Quilt

Last night the old quilting club got back together for the first time since the pandemic. 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. Bob E - March 21, 2021 6:42 am

    “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.”
    God sure has His work cut out for Him doesn’t He?
    Thank you for the message.

  2. Carrol Payne Cox - March 21, 2021 8:59 am

    I also come from a family of quilters. This is a lovely article. Your closing line is perfect.

  3. Dean - March 21, 2021 10:02 am

    Love it. I quilted when i was young and I loved setting around the quilt and listening to the old stories. A great way to connect to family and friends

  4. Liz Watkins - March 21, 2021 11:22 am

    God has made many quilts in HIS time- and continues to this very day!
    Have a Blessed day❣️

  5. Leigh Amiot - March 21, 2021 11:46 am

    Yes, Wilma’s closing line was perfect.

  6. Lynn - March 21, 2021 11:53 am

    Amen to Wilma’s last words to you! I have fond memories of my Grandma Elizabeth quilting with her sisters. The quilt frame took up much of her living room so much that the women could barely fit in the chairs around it.

  7. Te Burt - March 21, 2021 12:14 pm

    This one touched something deep inside. My mother quilted, mostly because we were too poor to afford store-bought blankets. And nothing store-bought worked as well as one of Mama’s quilts. I remember hot 110F days in Alabama when Mama, my younger brother and I sat in the dim light of Mama & Daddy’s bedroom, with the shades drawn (not sure why this mattered) to pass the day and the heat, and Mama prepared scraps of fabric for a quilt. When the weather turned cold, there was nothing more welcoming than to have her spread a quilt over me, knowing I would be snugly warm that night. I could trace my wardrobe from the scraps in that quilt. Only she had to quilt alone. We lived a far ways from her relatives. But Mama understood all the intricacies of quilt design because she came from Appalachia Tennessee, far enough back in those hills that quilting was a necessity. Her people had been there since at least 1815, as far back as we’ve tracked. That’s a long history of quilting.

  8. Suzanne Moore - March 21, 2021 12:31 pm

    I am saving this post to show to the quilting group which meets in our library’s basement. They will love it, as I did. Thank you, Sean, for this and all the other blessings you send our way.

  9. Joey - March 21, 2021 12:40 pm

    My sisters, cousins, and I each have numerous quilts my grandmother and her quilting circle made. Tiny, neat, hand sewn stitches. Amazing. I wish I could hear some of the stories those ladies told as they worked!

  10. James e inman - March 21, 2021 12:51 pm

    Yessir the women in my family quilted. Mama, both Grands and great Grands, aunts and even a Great Uncle Willie made quilts for the families. I still have some of the work blessed by their hands. Good stuff Sean.

  11. Jayne Holland - March 21, 2021 12:59 pm

    I’ve been quilting since 4th grade. I am 68 years old. I have pieces to sew beside my chair every night. I have collected more fabric than I can count. My grandmother taught me. And I taught my MOTHER.

  12. Tammy S. - March 21, 2021 1:06 pm

    When my husband and I got engaged in 1989 the church where my Dad pastored gave us a wedding shower. So many ladies turned out and we were shown so much love. We received most everything a new home needed. I will never forget my sister handing me a simple wrapped cubed shaped box. It was heavy. I opened it and there was tissue inside with a handwritten note card laid on top. One of the sweet ladies, Ms. Jerry Ann, had written, “Dear Tammy & Dickie, I went to many stores looking for the perfect gift for such a special couple. I even went to the mall and looked at items on your registry, but nothing seemed right. Then it hit me and I came home and went into the big trunk here at my house. This item was handmade by my Momma & my Grandma. Each child, and now grandchild, in our family has received one of these quilts for special occasions. There are no two alike. And yours will be the only one outside our family. But you both are like family to me. I hope you have many years of memories with this special quilt. Love, Ms Jerry Ann Sherril.” I pulled out the most beautiful patchwork quilt, much like the one you describe, Sean. I was speechless (which is saying a lot) and humbled. Ms. Jerry Ann has gone home to heaven now but we do still have that precious quilt. My husband and I used it as a picnic blanket when we first got married. We packed it up when we moved from TN to NC. After we had our first child, a sweet girl, I would make a picnic in the front yard, using that blanket, and he would come home for a quick lunch with us two girls before heading back to the Church he loved (and still loves) pastoring. That was 32 years ago this past August. Each of our three children now 29, 26 and 24 played on the quilt when they were babies. We have taken it to both the TN mountains and NC, SC & GA beaches for family trips. It hung in our living room on a quilt rack for years where we could easily pull it off to cover up while watching movies. It was used to make so many living room forts. And it covered our babies, then our teens, when they stayed home from school on sick days. I finally had to put it up one day. Parts of it are tattered but it is still bound together, holding on tight, and filled with more memories than I can count. Ms. Jerry Ann’s gift still humbles me and your story this Sunday morning reminded me of one of the sweetest ladies, the quilt she gifted us and 32 years of wonderful memories. Thanks, Sean!!!

  13. Jan - March 21, 2021 1:17 pm

    Amen! Quilts are filled with history and love!

  14. Karen - March 21, 2021 1:20 pm

    No one in my family ever quilted, but I asked a couple of ladies in my church to teach me to quilt about 7 years ago. For me, it is an art form to be handed down from generation to generation. I wanted to learn this craft, and to teach it to my children and grandchildren. By the way, you might be surprised by the number of men who quilt.
    Two ladies in my church patiently taught me to quilt. Each Friday, we gathered at the church with sewing machines, ironing boards, rulers, cutting mats, and rotary cutters. They guided me on how to cut fabric and sew it together, to create a colorful and functional piece of art.
    We traveled to quilt shops and met other women who shared our passion. We shared stories and lunches, and became friends.
    One of the women who showed me how to quilt gave away over 75 of the quilts she made. Sadly, she contracted COVID last year, and she did not survive. I will always be grateful for the gift of quilting that she gave to me. A piece of her lives on in me. My granddaughter and I made a quilt together last summer, so she will also live on in her.

  15. Sara C Nichols - March 21, 2021 1:44 pm

    Like her comment about women taking ugly old things and making them God does.

  16. Julie - March 21, 2021 2:20 pm

    I never mastered the art of quilting (I’ve been at the “pot holder level” for a long time with my church group), but I sure do appreciate and love all quilts, especially the handmade ones. Every room in my home displays at least one. They add color and warmth, they are beautiful to look at, and there’s nothing better than curling up with a quilt and a good book on a snowy day!
    Thanks, Sean, for highlighting this wonderful art❣️

  17. Trina - March 21, 2021 2:40 pm

    From the granddaughter of a quilter, thank you for sharing this. I tagged along to the women quilting in the basement of the church parsonage. Precious memories!

  18. Leesa - March 21, 2021 2:52 pm

    Thank you, Sean, for the message but also for the history of quilts. There is a long history of quilting in my family. My paternal great-grandmother received blue ribbons at the state fair for some of her quilts which I now have. I wonder if she had any idea of the ancient history of quilting? Thanks, Sean!

  19. Sharon Brock - March 21, 2021 3:58 pm

    This traditional quilter thanks you Sean. You managed to brilliantly capture the process. I constructed my first quilt in 1970 at age 17. I think I have made over 50. Some of my family members who don’t appreciate what was given to them won’t receive another but some have two. Quilting is a calling, like writing, which one does because it is what you are.

  20. Linda Moon - March 21, 2021 4:29 pm

    I’m glad the quilting club members got back together. My grandmother and my babies’ grandmother made quilts for their little ones. I’m also glad I met China and Mary Ann Pettway of the Gee’s Bend Quilting Collective at one of your LIVE EVENTS. Their history and their quilts are beautiful, as is your story of the old quilting club. Your ending was perfect, beautifully perfect…..just like one Dutch Girl from an old quilt that I framed. I’m looking at it right now, thinking of my grandmother.

  21. Helen De Prima - March 21, 2021 5:04 pm

    I’ve both designed new quilts and restored old ones, every stitch by hand, but most recently I’ve diverted my fabric stash into sewing masks. I’ve taken pride in matching patterns so that the product is attractive as well as protective. I’ll never know, but I hope scraps from my masks will end up in future quilts, passing on the love.

  22. Cheryl Buchanan - March 21, 2021 5:35 pm

    Yes! Usually many a prayer is said with those stitches of love! Wonderful histories and precious treasures.

  23. MAM - March 21, 2021 5:47 pm

    I didn’t come from a family of quilters, but I thoroughly enjoyed this story and Wilma’s great concluding comment! I think she one-upped you and that’s REALLY hard to do. Thanks for all your columns, Sean.

  24. Rebecca Souders - March 21, 2021 6:30 pm

    I’ve been quilting for over 40 years, since my youngest started school. Now with over a hundred completed quilts, I continue to say “My quilts are my epitaph.” Thank you for this column, Sean… for elevating the work of our hands into the joy of our hearts.

  25. Nancy - March 21, 2021 8:23 pm

    My great grandma died in 1968 at the age of 99. I have a couple of quilts she made with my grandma, aunt, and mother. I had more but shared them with my kids and grandkids. They are not fancy. The tops were made of flour sacks and the bottoms were made of dyed fertilizer sacks. I love them.

  26. Keith Gammon - March 21, 2021 9:29 pm

    Sean, I love this! I will be sharing with my quilt guild tomorrow at our first meeting since February 2020. Thank you!

  27. eighthnote55 - March 21, 2021 9:51 pm

    I have quilts that have been in my family for many, many years, mostly made of feed sacks and old clothing. There is one, however, that is quite interesting. In this quilt, there are pieces of (we believe) Confederate uniform. At least, something good came out of the wearer’s time in that cloth.

  28. JonDragonfly - March 21, 2021 9:58 pm

    Te Burt touched on my point with her line “I could trace my wardrobe from the scraps in that quilt.”
    Ask any quilter and you’ll probably get a detailing of “That was Granpa’s overhauls”, “That was li’l Jennies second grade dress”, “That was my first apron”. There is a world of history in a quilt if we will only dig it out.

    Bless you, Wilma, for your perfect summation.
    She did top you, Sean. And you should be proud of it.

  29. Christina - March 21, 2021 10:02 pm

    Amen, Ms, Wilma, Amen!

  30. GARY - March 21, 2021 11:48 pm

    Sean, you missed flour sacks. When biscuits were served at every meal and made from scratch, flour come in 50# sacks. And the flour mfgs figured out farm wives liked the sacks with prints. In fact you could do a whole column on flour sacks I imagine. However to quilts, my grandmother and then my mother made quilts that included flour sack material along with other scraps of cloth in their quilts. My wife now makes quilts, specificallly for Quilts of Valor, an organization that provides quilts to any veteran of the US armed forces. Unlike Grandma, she now uses a sewing machine that has more computing power than NASA put in the Apollo capsules for moon landings. But the love goes in just the same. And they’re wonderful creations.

  31. Carolym - March 22, 2021 1:13 am

    Carolyn……I am 89 and still quilting….So happy to read this. I sometimes worry that the art of quilting will be lost.
    Your article warmed my heart.Hand quilted many of my first quilts but arthritis has made that a thing of the past. I do still go into the quilt shop where I have worked for the last 30 years, and help out for few hours a couple days a week. Just cant stay away. Thank you so much for this lovely article. And then yes….Wilma definitely had the last and best word.

  32. Gloria Knight - March 22, 2021 1:19 am

    Some of my most treasured keepsakes are quilts made my Grandmother Ruth (who lived to102) . I grew up sleeping under those quilts and she was still “piecing ” squares in her 90’s.

  33. Sandi. - March 22, 2021 4:45 am

    Hi Sean: Wilma’s remark at the end tied your quilting story together beautifully! i wish I knew how to quilt, but sadly I do not. However, I greatly admire the patient people who do. It is truly an art form.

  34. kenneth somerset - March 22, 2021 1:20 pm

    I have a quilt my grandmother gave me that her Aunt made from flower sacks when she was little girl traveling from North Carolina to Oklahoma in the back of a covered wagon. Needless to say it is priceless. I had a quilt made a few years ago as an anniversary present. It has the date we were married and our birthdates , in two corners are my sons birthdays and wedding dates, then each grandchild has a birthday square. When they marry it will be added on until it is full and another one started. Instead of the family bible, we have a family’s history quilt.

  35. Barbara - March 22, 2021 1:46 pm

    Precious. My mom made quilts for all her grandchildren to receive when they got married. My daughters love to point out the patches that are from the scrapes of the dresses mom made them when they were little girls. My mom has passed away now and those quilts are more precious than they were before. Sweet memories! ❤️

  36. Judy - March 22, 2021 5:11 pm

    Thank you for sharing.
    I too, have been making quilts for years. I didn’t start until I was 40.
    I belong to a quilting bee but like so many others, we have curtailed until all are vaccinated.
    The quilts of yesteryear are mainly dreams. No one wants to piece little pieces together. Everyone seems to want to make a statement. The quilts are machine sewn and quilted on a longarm. Hurry, hurry, hurry.
    I have seen peoples mouths drop when I tell them it takes me 3 months to hand quilt a king size quilt.
    Life goes in a circle. Hand quilting will come back in style someday.

  37. Tawanah Fagan Bagwell - March 24, 2021 1:32 am

    I love quilts and wish I could sew but, I don’t have the patience. I loved this story.


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