In the sky the bright
On the banks the
pale moon shone,
And ’twas from
Aunt Dinah’s quilting party
I was seeing Nellie home…
That song was old-fashioned when I was a child, and by now it is probably preserved in amber. My grandfather sang it best – he had a lot of songs in his memory bank – and I really liked this one. It goes on to love and marriage and a long life with Nellie, and I guess these things are old-fashioned, too. Quaint, maybe. People don’t sing much anymore, but I grew up with people who did. (Except Grammy, who said she couldn’t carry a tune in a basket).
A song like that has a lot more for a kid than something about bus wheels or teeny spiders. The whole idea of a quilting party, for starters. We were well beyond the era of quilting parties when I was young, and even the idea of quilts in some households. The 50s and 60s were more the time for electric blankets, synthetic fabrics, and “bigger and better.” The appreciation of old time crafts hadn’t become popular and a lot of the older ways were gone We had a few quilts, slipcovers for old blankets, mostly, and tied instead of quilted. I still cherish the threadbare and lumpy remains of a quilt great-great aunt Katie made me when I was three. I recall a sunny day at the mailbox and Mom handing me down the largest piece of mail. “It’s for you,” she said.
When Nellie and her beau attended the quilting party, the hand quilting of the large creations was sometimes shared with friends gathered around a frame, each person quilting with tiny stitches her own section of the exposed quilt. There was a subtle competition for the smallest stitches, the most even, the smoothest results. Women were justly proud of their work, and at a quilting bee you were on display to your world.
Some of the most special quilts were those sometimes made upon the occasion of a marriage, or for a departure on a pioneer trail. It is hard to remember that a haul to Oregon or Arizona was probably for the rest of your lives – you would not see these friends again, ever. So all friends, relatives, and neighbors made a friendship quilt, using bits and pieces from each family and adding their names and good wishes. Then they pulled together and quilted it. Presented to the bride or pioneer it was a gift of not merely fabric and thread, but a tangible offering of love, shared memory, hope, and warmth. Of home, in short. From the old households to a new one, a passing of a torch of sorts.
By the 70s, when I married, interest was starting to revive in traditions that had been in mothballs. We received two lovely quilts for our wedding, one pale, one bright. Later I made a basic quilt for each daughter, They were a bit awkward, I think – quilting is not really my art – but I reasoned that some traditions need to be handed on, even if not perfectly. My sister-in-law, Debi, is a wonderful quilter – it is her thing, her passion. My brother teases her about cutting up perfectly good cloth in order to piece it back together for new cloth, but I believe he is proud of her work.
I have been given two very old and tattered “cutter” quilts for making smaller works. They are even thinner than my old quilt from Aunt Kate. The cotton filling is matted and falling out, and is so old I think it was picked by slaves’ hands. There is so much human work here – old, tattered, pieces removed and all. A quilt has so many stories. An electric blanket has hardly any at all.