Patchwork History Quilt Tells Family Stories
Quilts appeal to so many senses. Familiar colors and patterns from fabrics chosen by the quilter, sometimes from scraps of old clothing, and often purchased at a store and held for that special project until the time is right. It's the smell and feel of the quilt as it wraps us in warmth, offering something more than just beauty: comfort, too. But some heirloom quilts are more than that. The quilt itself is a visual history of a person or a family, either because it is made from a person's clothes, as in the story The Patchwork Quilt by Valerie Flournoy, or because it is made with the intention of capturing a piece of family history, as in the wedding quilts made by my mother-in-law. No matter what materials or methods used, a family history quilt can be an unforgettable and valuable family heirloom.
A Feed Sack Quilt
What is your rarest possession? Is it a diamond ring, a motorboat, or a luxury fur coat? Probably not. If you are lucky enough to own one of these items and your house was to catch fire, and assuming your family was safe and accounted for, you probably wouldn't worry about saving any of those superficial things. Instead, you would probably reach for some item of sentimental value: an heirloom, perhaps, passed down from the generations.
I have an heirloom like that, one made by my grandmother almost 40 years ago. It is a small, crib-sized patchwork quilt, and it is made from the fabric used to make feed sacks during the 1970s. When I was a baby my grandmother and grandfather lived on a farm in Indiana where they grew corn and potatoes. They had a big barn with a John Deere tractor, and a little dachsund named Skoey. And my grandmother loved to sew. She made my little patchwork quilt out of clothing scraps and leftover squares from the feed sack fabric. She says that in those days, fabric was very, very expensive. But they bought lots of feed for their animals, and when the sacks came in a pattern she particularly liked, they bought extra.
Every time I pick up the perfectly-stitched, quilt of perfectly-aligned squares, I consider the economy, resourcefulness, and frugality involved in making that kind of handiwork. My grandmother is still alive and well and in her mid-80's, but unfortunately she has lost the ability to use her sewing machine, though she continues to hand-stitch her Christmas Socks, which are made from white felt sewn together and decorated with pieces of felt and tiny beads.
My feedsack quilt was made by my grandmother using the scraps from the same fabric she used to sew my baby clothes.
Photos Make Great Family History Quilts!
The Wedding Story Quilt
My mother-in-law is an avid quilter. She has made several family history quilts that are rare and special possessions for each of her eight children when they married. My husband's quilt was the third one made, and she allowed us to select the color for ours. We call these family history quilts wedding quilts, and they are sort of like a "this is your life" in fabric.
She makes her wedding quilts with the help of all of her other children, their aunts, spouse, and family friends. Most of the quilts have 20 to 25 squares, with a large square in the middle commemorating the place and date of the child's wedding to their spouse, with the wedding date stitched into the fabric. Mom sends pre-cut squares of plain, unbleached muslin fabric to each family member, then takes what they send back and pieces each original square commemorating life events of the person the quilt is about into the wedding quilt. Some examples of quilt squares include:
- Photographs of the person transferred onto the fabric using special photo transfer paper and ink from a color inkjet printer.
- Pictures drawn using colored fabric pens or markers. My husband prefers to prepare his squares using this method.
- Pieced fabric sewn together to form a picture quilt square. Some of the more advanced sewers in our family prefer to use this method. But my 13-year old daughter recently gave it a try too, in honor of her grandmother.
These quilts are usually presented on the wedding day, and displayed proudly behind the bride and groom. As the years have passed, they have grown more intricate, and those who have participated in this family tradition have become pros at making their quilt squares uniquely fit the personality of the person honored by the quilt.
One thing that used to bother me about this wedding quilt tradition is that it wasn't made to commemorate the person's spouse. But recently I have come to understand something about these story quilts. They are the story of a person's life before marriage, and it serves as a reminder of the bond between mother and her children, while also being a way to let go, and allow that person to form their own nuclear family with their new wife or husband. I think this is honestly a lovely tradition, and one that we all wanted to honor when we celebrated Mom and Dad's 50th wedding anniversary.
A Quilt Honoring 50 Years of Marriage
After my mother-in-law made a quilt for each of her eight children to honor their marriage and the formation of a new family, it's no wonder that all of her kids got together and did the same thing for her on her 50th wedding anniversary. The resulting quilt is only partially shown in this photo. The finished product of this collaboration was over 10 feet tall and about 7 feet wide.
If you decide to make a quilt of this size, please consider how the finished product will be displayed once it is presented to the guest of honor. Fortunately, my in-laws have a wall that is extra tall in their house, so the quilt can be displayed in its full glory!
My husband's oldest sister stitched the central quilt square with a picture of the temple where my in-laws were married 50 years ago in gold and tan thread. Some of the squares were pieced or embroidered, and several more were made by first doing a pencil drawing on the quilt squares, then coloring them in with permanent fabric markers or paint pens especially designed for use on fabric.
In order to make sure that the quilt squares for the finished quilt were uniform, one person in the family took on the onerous task of pre-cutting the squares and labeling the margins (for non-sewers) and identifying the top and bottom of each square. Several quilt squares were shipped across the United States in one state or other, then all of them were collected and mailed to my sister-in-law who lives in New Zealand. This quilt made its way almost completely around the globe before it was presented to my parents-in-law! This quilt will be a lasting keepsake of their wedding anniversary and their marriage long after they are gone, and was a perfect addition to a lovely family dinner in their honor.
A Few More Keepsakes
Historical Quilting Links
- The Quilt Index. A website dedicated to the study and preservation of historical quilts. Includes a 5000-item database.
- Quilts and Quiltmaking in America online exhibition, The American Folklife Collection, Library of Congress
- A brief history of Friendship Quilts on Womenfolk.com gives a glimpse into one of the origins of family history quilts.
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