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.