"Good Morning Earlington:
Cloth Memories More Precious Over Time "
Reading over a story about quilts in a recent Messenger brought back dormant memories about my grandmothers’ quilting. Now, that’s nearly a lost art for many reasons—as most who have tried and given up on that particular discipline will tell you. It is not for the average person now-a-days. It takes patience, diligence, dedication, creativeness, neatness, tough nimble fingers, and worlds of time. At odd spurts in my life I might have been creative a time or two but scratch most of the other traits. Once-upon-a-time I even tried my hand at a "Dutch Girl" and still have seven still-separate squares to prove it.
However, only a generation or so ago almost every female quilted. My cousin Nancy (then Egloff) says she remembers helping my grandmother Zadie Clements Cothran cut quilt blocks for hours on end. Of course, most of these were made in the winter when people were cooped-up during the cold months of snow and early darkness. There was little else for the women to do except quilt, crochet, or play an instrument and sing after the dinner dishes were washed and put away. (This, of course, was in the years of BC, "Before Carryout.") Nancy remembers that my grandmother made "Fan" and "Bow-Tie" quilts. During this time in the ‘50s the General Baptist (as well as a few other churches) had what they called quilting bees where the ladies of the church would get together once a week to handquilt (who knew it could be done by machine) tops to earn extra money for the missionary guild. Two, perhaps three, generations were involved in these busy quilting sessions or weekly social events. I can remember quilt frames set up in the General Baptist basement which then had to be moved to a corner before Sundays to make room for the children.
Ladies who thought of themselves as without talent often unknowingly constructed breathtaking works of art. The tiny pieces they cut from scraps of worn-out dresses and shirts were painstakingly sewn into easily recognizable, traditional patterns, and the variety of colors used were truly amazing. My grandmother once pieced a "simple" pattern of squares made entirely of discarded dresses we children had of feedsack dresses and shirts—feedsacks with patterns of tiny flowers, sailing ships, cowboys, and dolls. Stitches on some of the quilts made by these artisans were so tiny they could barely be detected except for the puffiness. Today, families treasure these quilts—many of which are stained with tiny dots of red from pricks made by needles which rotely dipped in and down and back up through tops and cotton padding countless thousands of times.
I remember my maternal Grandmother May (Ashley Wilson Byrd) made quilts constantly. She could never throw anything away. When her hands became so crippled that she could no longer sew with a needle & thread, she used an old treadle machine…saving every piece of scrap of cotton, wool, or threadbare dresses (if there were areas not so threadbare). I still have a duster she quilted. She called it her Joseph’s coat-of-many-colors. She was on a first name basis with the Biblical prophets and seemed to be proud to have a piece of clothing like one of them. She also made a quilt from approximately a hundred old silk ties she had been given (many from her son-in-law John Paul Jones, Lillian’s husband). "Waste not, want not" was ingrained into her personality and carried over into her quilt-making.
Dewey Grant remembers our great-grandmother Molly Clements quilting in her living room when he was a boy. The frame she used was one she passed down to our grandmother. He said most of Molly’s quilts (as well as bonnets) were made from scraps, feed sacks, and on rare occasions from cloth from the St. Bernard Company Store. The pieces were usually coarse in texture, so the end result was a bulky, weighty quilt. That was because they were the warmest and that exactly was what was needed on cold winter nights. Quilts were created more out of need, than for aesthetic reasons. There were no thermostats to run across the room to turn up for extra heat. Colder weather meant shoveling another shovel of coal into the furnace, laying another log in the fireplace, or throwing a couple of extra quilts onto the featherbed.
I can remember when my grandmother's fingers weren’t quite so agile any more and we little ones got to help tying knots in some of those heavy quilts which were sometimes made of woolen squares. I especially remember one muggy summer day when getting to do that suddenly became a "chore" as our little hands became damp and perspiration rolled down our hot freckled faces onto the dark wool pieces. Dewey said he had a theory about the thickness. He figured the thinner the tops and the fancier the sewing, the later it became in the decade and the warmer the houses were kept in the winter. Sounds about right to me because I too can remember jumping out of a toasty bed onto a cold floor to run and stand in front of a roaring fire on a frosty mornings before school. I’m sure I never once thought of those quilts being works of art—just wonderfully warm, soft and cozy (except maybe for that extra heavy, scratchy wool one). Nevertheless, I now study my mother’s and grandmothers’ quilts and enjoy the memories trapped in each of the tiny cloth time capsules. If one picture is worth a thousand words, each family quilt is an album.
12/06/01 Ann Gipson