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Grandmother's Quilts

The quilt that has been around the world. It accompanied my father everywhere in his twenty years of naval service. Squares are 1 inch.

The quilt that has been around the world. It accompanied my father everywhere in his twenty years of naval service. Squares are 1 inch.

Log cabin

Log cabin

Ouachita Quilter

Recently I was doing some research about quilts for another article site. I was rather amazed a by the modern process of quilting.

I was even more surprised by the modern perception of quilts. I grew up surrounded by quilts, and except for "showpiece" or "company" quilts, they were never treated as anything more than a functional item.

My grandmother was an avid quilter before she lost her eyesight, and made over 80 years worth of quilts. I thought perhaps that present day quilters, and quilt admirers, would be interested in hearing her accounts of quilting throughout the years.

This is a interview with a woman born in the mountains of Arkansas, that learned to quilt as a child, and who carried that passion through her life. Even today, when she can't see well enough to sew, she still loves to talk about quilting.




Where are the Ouachita Mountains?

Few people who aren't from Oklahoma or Arkansas have heard of the Ouachita mountains. They aren't as famous as the Ozarks.

The Ouachita mountains cover a large area that includes western Arkansas and parts of southeast Oklahoma.

Mount Magazine is the highest peak of the Ouachita range. One of the most famous American tourist cities is Hot Springs, Arkansas. Hot Springs is nestled in the Ouachita mountains.

Sometimes the Ouachitas are considered part of the Ozarks. They are actually two separate mountain chains on either side of the Arkansas Valley.

About My Grandmother

My grandmother was born in 1918. That makes her a quite a bit older than the grandmother's of other women my age.

In her 90's now, and no longer able to see to quilt, she still has a passion for the art. A passion that began when she was only twelve years old.

My grandmother was one of 18 children. The eldest daughter from her father's second marriage.

She had six younger sisters. Her mother, from her accounts, had a taste for nice things: wicker furnishings, embroidered linens, beautiful quilts, and fine china.

During the Depression, her father resorted to bootlegging whiskey to support his family. Apparently he was very successful in this business, as all the family photos from that time show children well-dressed in embroidered clothes and leather shoes.

They also had little luxuries that others might only dream of at that time, such as oil lamps, scented soaps, materials for embroidery, plenty of food, and books.

Grandma married at the age of sixteen, and had ten children, nine of whom survived to adulthood. From what I can glean from her stories, she eloped on a romantic whim, and was quite startled by the realities of being a responsible adult.

I won't lie and say that my grandmother is, or was, a nice person. She will tell you quite bluntly that when times were lean, she would let her children do without something so that she could afford the materials to make quilts.

She admits that she resented functional sewing needed for their clothes and bedding, and resented even more the items she had to purchase for them that took funds away from her hobby.

However, there is no doubt that she was a superb quilter. She often completed between three and six hand pieced quilts a year. In the early years of her marriage, when she and Grandpa were struggling to subsist as sharecroppers, these quilts were simple and functional.

With time though, her skills evolved, and her patterns became more elaborate. Here is the story in her own words:

Original artwork by author, inspired by family quilts.

Original artwork by author, inspired by family quilts.

Family Quilting Terms

Our family used slightly different terms to describe quilts. This may have been regional or personal.

Patchwork--scraps or strips of fabric sewn together that do not create a pattern. This includes "crazy quilt" style quilts, string quilts, rag quilts, squares, triangles, or honeycombs. Also used sometimes for any tessellated pattern made with random fabric. Templates or patterns might be used to measure the shapes, but there was no deliberate color formation.

Piecework or Pieced quilt--A quilt block pieced to create a specific repeating pattern in the finished quilt. Such as: "Dresden Plate", "Flying Geese" or "Bear Paw".

Pallet Quilts or Scrap Quilts--Usually just large squares (12-18 inches) stitched in rows. Most often made of denim, corduroys, or upholstery cloth.

Scrap-Patch--Another term for a patchwork quilt. Made 'crazy quilt' style with random shaped pieces.

Paper quilt--A quilt that was measured, cut and pieced over pieces of paper. The paper was always removed. Used to stabilize silks, satins, and knit materials.

Button or Tufted Quilt--A quilt that is hand-tied, either using strong yarn, or with fabric covered buttons sewn through to create tufting.

Batten or Battening--Quilt batting. Could be could be cotton lint, storebought cotton batting, fiberfill batting, blanket material, or cloth.

Lap Quilting--Piecing and quilting without use of frame or hoop. Mots often done all by hand.

Great-Grandmother's Quilting

Me: Tell me first about your mother...did she quilt often?

Grandma: Oh Lord, yes. She made at least three quilts a year. She pieced more, maybe six or sometimes even ten a year. On the sewing machine. She quilted them in the winter.

Me: She pieced all of hers on a sewing machine?

Grandma: All of the ones I can remember, yes. A treadle sewing machine.

Me: Then quilted them in the winter when it was cold. That makes sense, it would be nice and warm under the quilt.

Grandma: Not my mother. She never lap quilted. She always used a frame. A big frame. Not a hoop.

Me: Can you remember any of her quilts? The patterns? One that was your favorite?

Grandma: She made a baby quilt. She had a baby born before me, that died. She made the quilt out of red,white, and black satin. The same material they used to line the coffin and to make the burial gown. She put the quilt in a trunk and no one was allowed to touch it. It was called a "Mourning Quilt".

We never used black in a quilt after that. Not until I made a "Delectable Mountains" later on. That was years later.

But the prettiest quilt she made, I can remember it like it was yesterday. It was all white blocks, with rose pink strips between each block. And my mother, she drew a picture of a hand holding a bouquet of flowers.

It looked real. And she embroidered that on each block and all the flowers was different colors.The blocks were arranged in a zig-sag pattern that went from top to bottom, rather than in rows.

It burned up when her house caught fire. But it sure was pretty. She was a member of some club or association, and she entered that quilt in a show they had and won first place.

The prize was a store bought bedspread. And she gave that bedspread to me when I married.

Me: So you were raised around quilts that were made for fun as well as for purpose.

Grandma: Yes I was. My aunt used to make quilts too. You went to her house and she may have twenty or so quilts she had just made all stacked up, and she would let us unfold them and look at them. I used to get excited to see a new one.

Satin Turtle Block for a pillow.

Satin Turtle Block for a pillow.

A nine-patch block. This was usually the first pattern given to first time quilters.

A nine-patch block. This was usually the first pattern given to first time quilters.

Quilting as an Art Form

Grandmother's First Quilt

Me: So tell me about your first quilt.

Grandma: You already know that story!

Me: I know. But I want you to tell me again. So I can write it down exactly as you tell it.

Grandma: Well it was like this. When I turned twelve years old, my Daddy went to town and brought me back a sack. There was a shirt factory nearby where you could buy scraps.

He brought me that sack of scraps. Also a thimble, needles, my own scissors. Even the thread, though my mother always had thread.

I said, " Daddy, what am I supposed to do with all this?" I hadn't ever worn a thimble.

He said I was almost a woman, and that he expected me to piece my first quilt by the time I was thirteen. I had hardly sewed a stitch in my life, so I was worried about getting that whole thing done. But he said I had to, and that my mother would help me with the pattern.

Me: That was unusual, wasn't it? Most girls began sewing earlier than that.

Grandma: Not me. I never wanted to and no one ever made me.

Me: What was the pattern?

Grandma: Sixteen patch. It was a sixteen patch.

Me: That is a lot of little pieces to begin with!

Grandma: My mother wanted to make sure I got my practice in piecing, I reckon. I didn't have much time to work on it. I went to school and helped on the farm and in the house. When I got all the blocks done they wouldn't fit together, and I just knew it wouldn't be done by my birthday.

Me: Did you finish it that year?

Grandma: Not that year, no. I had it pieced by my birthday. But that was because Momma helped me cut the blocks and sew in little strips of cloth between them. To make them all fit together right.

Me: How long did it take you to quilt it?

Grandma: I had it quilted by my fourteenth birthday. I started that year when school let out. The longest part of that was sewing the quilt to the quilting frame. I sure hated that part, but my Momma said I had to do it, and sew it on neat.

Broken Star--(2003-2004)

Broken Star--(2003-2004)

Example of scalloped quilting pattern used on several of Grandma's quilts.

Example of scalloped quilting pattern used on several of Grandma's quilts.

Quilting Process-Handmade Quilts

Me: I've been reading a lot about how quilts were made during that time, and they are different from region to region, and quilter to quilter. What was the process you used for your first quilt, from start to finish?

Grandma: Well, I made that first quilt the way my mother made hers. She gave me the paper pieces to use for patterning. I had to fold all that cloth over those paper pieces. Then when I pieced them into the block I pulled the paper off as I sewed.

Me: What stitch did you use?

Grandma: For that quilt I used back stitch. That's what Momma used, she said it made the seams stronger. Later I used a running stitch, or you might call it a straight stitch. After all the blocks were pieced, they had to be sewn in rows. By that time I was figuring out that I liked sewing quilt blocks.

It was hard to sew those rows together on that first quilt. I had to lay them out on my bed and pin and baste, and the corners gave me trouble. Momma didn't do a stitch of it, but she told me what I needed to do. I finally got that quilt top together.

Me: What about batting? I know your family grew cotton...did you have to card it yourself to get the seeds out?

Grandma: No. I helped hoe the cotton. And I picked the cotton. But Daddy took it to the gin. My Momma took an old cotton know what a cotton sack looks like don't you?

Well one was worn out and she sewed it up in a different way. Daddy would take that to the gin with him and bring it back full of cotton lint.

That is what we used for batten. Some people had the cards to comb the cotton, but we never had a set of those in our house.

The hardest part of making the batten was that you couldn't just stuff the lint in the quilt. We laid it out on the floor and beat it with the broom until it flattened out and made a sheet. When that sheet got as big as it could get, we laid it on the quilt backing,

Then we beat another batch and fit that pieces to the first. We did that until the quilt back was covered with cotton. Then we laid that top over it and pinned it.

You had to keep that back smooth, and run your hand under the top while you were pinning to get the bunches out of the batten. And make sure that the cotton pieces overlapped otherwise you would have a gap when you started quilting. But no...we never had to pick our own seeds out.

Me: It was ready to be quilted. How did that work? What did you use to mark the quilting pattern on the fabric?

Grandma: Colored chalk. Momma hardly ever drew her pattern on. If it was a fancy pattern she would make a few lines, but she did most of it by eye. For my first quilt, she showed me how to make a shell pattern (scallop pattern). I had to learn how to draw that on and gauge where the next line needed to be.

Me: Then it was time for it to go on the frame. And you sewed it to the frame?

When we cut the quilt backing, we always made it bigger than the top. That gave us extra cloth that we used to sew the quilt to the frame. We had a big frame, and you took that cloth and wrapped it around the frame and whip-stitched it good and tight, but not so tight it pulled your quilt out of place.

Of course we only had that one frame, so you were expected to do your quilting pretty fast so that the next person could use it. Since it was my first quilt, I had to stitch it all by myself.

Sometimes when families set up a frame all the girls and women would help with the quilting to make it faster. Momma never let anyone else quilt on hers. That's why I didn't have any practice yet.

I sure hated that frame. It was hard to get your hands around. You rolled up sections as you went but it was still back breaking. And you had to make those stitches fine and even, and they better look the same on the back as the front. Else she made me take them out. Ten stitches to the inch, no less than eight.

My grandmother picking cotton with her parents.

My grandmother picking cotton with her parents.

Detail of Apple Core quilt--(circa 1995)

Detail of Apple Core quilt--(circa 1995)

Quilting With A Family

Me: How many quilts did you make before you left home?

Grandma: Only that one. (laughing) I finished school and then met your Grandpa. When ran off to get married, so for awhile I was scared to go back home. We lived with some friends for awhile and I didn't have room to quilt or any of my stuff.

Me: You went back home after L. (first child) was born, right?

Grandma: Yes, that was over a year later. By then I had the baby and Momma and Daddy weren't as mad. Still a little mad though. But Momma gave me my quilt and the bedspread, and some things to start a home.

Me: So did you start quilting again?

Grandma: Not right away. I had all that work to do. After I had some of the kids I started again. I made plain old nine-patch quilts for covers. Because those old houses were cold. Didn't have any heat except what was in the heater.

I pieced all those on a sewing machine, but I didn't have a frame, so I started lap quilting. I found out I liked that a lot. I didn't put any fancy quilting into those, just quilted around the squares to hold the batten in place,

Me: So...when did you start making patterned quilts again?

Grandma: Lord, I don't remember the exact year! I've made so many quilts. When the kids were little it seemed like I was making covers all the time. I guess somewhere in there, when most of them were in school I probably tried a pattern quilt again. I hated to make a nice quilt when they would just wallow them and tear them up. And they wouldn't have left my sewing alone. I couldn't have kept up with a difficult pattern.

Apple Core quilt pattern (circa 1995)

Apple Core quilt pattern (circa 1995)

Quilting detail from "Log Cabin".

Quilting detail from "Log Cabin".

Practice block found in Grandma's scraps.

Practice block found in Grandma's scraps.


Me: Let's talk about WWII. How did you manage to quilt when everything was rationed?

Grandma: Well, fabric wasn't rationed. Money sure was though!

We used whatever we could find. Mostly we used scraps from where had made clothes, or from worn out clothes. And cloth from flour and meal sacks.

I made a lot of quilts that were backed with flour sacks. Batten was hard to come by then, so I just quilted through the top and back.

The cottons sacks didn't offer much padding, so I had to make more quilts for covers. The wore out faster too.

Me: There was a movement then to make "Victory Quilts", to donate to soldiers. Did you do that?

Grandma: I could barely scrape together enough for my own family. It was hard having eight children during that time. I wasn't about to make quilts to give away.

Me: What about thread and things like that?

Grandma: I bought thread if no one else had some to spare. I didn't buy store bought clothes for the kids. They would have just torn them up I guess.

I figured they needed the covers more anyhow. I just used the flour sacks though, and scraps. I didn't have to buy cloth often, just goods to make clothes.

We went through a lot of flour and meal feeding that many. We always had plenty of sacking.

Purple and green "Turtle Quilt". (2003)

Purple and green "Turtle Quilt". (2003)

Orange and brown "Turtle Quilt" (1970's)

Orange and brown "Turtle Quilt" (1970's)

Quilting after the War

Me: By the 50's things were better. Did you quilt then?

Grandma: I was working then. I didn't have time to quilt. Some of the kids were grown and married. Every now and then I made a pallet quilt, just some big squares thrown together so when they brought the babies over they could lay on the floor.

I had bought covers on the bed then. Bedspreads. We had to make quilts and get by for so long, that when we got the chance we bought curtains and covers and rugs, rather than make them.

Me: When you started quilting again, it was for pleasure then?

Grandma: I reckon. I wanted to make another quilt and try a pattern. I did make a quilt around then. A "Turtle Quilt", because a lady came into the shop where I worked and had a real pattern for one.

Me: Mum says it was almost the 70's before she saw you quilt again. Can you remember what pattern you started with again?

Grandma: No.It would have been something that came from a magazine or somewhere. By then I only had your mother at home. (my mother was born in 1961, after all the other children were grown) Since I had a child at home again I quit work.

When we moved to Missouri, she was up a big kid, and never messed with stuff like the others. I could lay patterns out. And we didn't need quilts as covers, so I could take my time.

Red, black, and grey baby block quilt. sewn in 2003 by my grandmother.

Red, black, and grey baby block quilt. sewn in 2003 by my grandmother.

Quilting In The Golden Years

After my grandfather died, my grandmother lived with us for a short time. After a few years she wanted a home of her own again, and moved back the Ouachita mountains near where she was born.

Even thought she lived alone in her home, her neighbors were her family and friends, most of whom were her own age and who also practiced traditional handcrafts. During this time, Grandma made most of her fancier pieced quilts.

If you went to her house, you were likely to discover several quilts lying about in various stages of completion. Whenever a particular quilt grew boring or frustrating she would work on another.

I am sure she made at least 30 quilts in that time. These ranged from a simple "Log Cabin" to elaborate medallion quilts like the one shown at the bottom of this article.

Two years ago, after her eye-sight failed her, my grandmother moved here, to live with my mother. Although she can't demonstrate techniques, I have taken my quilting projects to her for advice, criticism, and explanation of certain techniques.

Detail of hand quilting on Baby Block quilt.

Detail of hand quilting on Baby Block quilt.

Quilting Superstitions

  • A needle broken while quilting means bad luck or death.
  • If you make a 'Lonestar Quilt', someone will die. Make a variation instead.
  • Never make a 'Wandering Foot' quilt for an boy or man.
  • Spiderweb patterns for quilting are good luck.
  • Don't start a quilt on Friday.
  • A girl should piece a baker's dozen of quilt tops before she marries to have a good marriage.
  • A quilt stitched by all the women in the immediate family will have healing properties.
  • Place at least one hand-stitch in a machine-pieced quilt to ensure good luck.
"Classic Dahlia" detail

"Classic Dahlia" detail

Favorite Quilt Patterns, Hardest Quilts, and Quilt Care

Me: Now for some fun questions!

Grandma: These have all been fun. I like talking about quilts. You have made me remember a lot. Hadn't thought about some of those quilts in years.

Me: What was the hardest pattern you ever pieced? It can be more than one.

Grandma: "The Broken Star" quilt. And the "Delectable Mountains" wasn't easy either. And what is that one that I made for your mother? The "Dogwood" quilt. It was appliqued. I've never done anything as hard as appliqueing in those tiny brown pieces on the petals.

{"The Dogwood Quilt" was a solid sheet of green material appliqued with white Dogwood trellis. It was a pattern my mother found on a package of Mountain Mist quilt batting in the 1969.}

Me: What about the "Dahlia Quilt"?

Grandma: It was a little hard at times. Just the petals where you make the pleats. But I lived alone at that time and had plenty of time to work on it in peace.

Me: Well, I know that the patchwork quilts and the squares were the easiest. What about quilts you enjoyed the most? Your favorites to piece?

Grandma: I don't know about that. I enjoyed them all. And I hated them all at some point too. I suppose the "Turtle Quilts" were some of the most enjoyable. And all the patchwork quilts.

Me: Was the "Dogwood Quilt" the first quilt you appliqued?

Grandma: I tried to applique a "Turtle Quilt" once, but it didn't turn out too good. I don't believe I finished it. The "Dogwood" was the first appliqued quilt I finished. The next one was the ''Tulip Basket". Your mother did all the embroidery on that one after I appliqued it.

Me: Were there any patterns you wanted to try, but never got the chance?

Grandma: No. I quilted all the patterns I liked. If I could still make quilts, I would probably make some of the same ones again.

Me: Did you ever go to a quilting bee?

Grandma: A quilting party, you mean? No. I never did that. They didn't have many of those anywhere I lived that I recall. At least, I was never invited to one. I knew some older ladies that went to them, some ways off. Usually to help finish up quilts for newly married people.

Me: Did your mother ever go to one?

Grandma: Not that I ever saw or heard of. She sometimes quilted for people, but she got paid. She charged five dollars every time she quilted up a spool of thread. So if she quilted a whole quilt with three spools, she earned fifteen dollars. It all depended on the size of the quilts, and how close they wanted the pattern.

Me: Little bit of a subject change, here. I've been reading some of the ways that people care for and store quilts now. How was that done back in the day?

Grandma: Well, before washing machines, we washed them on rub-boards. Sometimes if they were dirty enough and we had a lot of them, we hung them on the line in the rain, and let them hang til the sun came out. They were rinsed at least, and the sun bleached them clean.

Me: Quilt collectors would die if they heard that!

Grandma: Well, we used our quilts. Everyone made them. Later we threw them in the washing machine. If a quilt is made right, and you take care to back stitch over those corner seams, a quilt should hold together through many a washing. And we stored them wherever. On the bed mostly. Closets, and in trunks.

Me: So, over the years, how many quilts do you suppose you have made?

Grandma: How many?? I honestly couldn't say. At least More like 80. I could have made a hundred, I reckon. If you count all the pallet quilts and nine-patches.

Me: Last question...I promise. I just started piecing a crazy quilt. Did you ever make one of those?

Grandma: A crazy quilt? What is that?

Me: It is a collection of pieces of all shapes just cut and stitched together. Without a pattern.

Grandma: Oh! I never made one, no. My mother did, but she called it a scrap-patch quilt.

Me: Did she do the embroidery on it?

Grandma: No, not on those. She sewed those little pieces over paper. They were just made to use up scraps. She only embroidered on the pieced-work quilts. Good luck getting that thing to lay flat! I did make a couple of string quilts, now that I think of it. And oh...they were the hardest things in the world to get flat!

Me: Okay. Well, thank you!

Grandma: You're welcome. I sure enjoyed talking about quilts. I don't know if anyone will actually want to read about that old stuff, but your welcome to it. And I will think and see if I can remember any older patterns I worked. I never thought about it this way...quilts were just something we all did to pass the time and stay warm.

''Classic Dahlia'' quilt in peach and mint green. Note the pleated petals and applique. (1990's)

''Classic Dahlia'' quilt in peach and mint green. Note the pleated petals and applique. (1990's)

Practice quilt block found in Grandma's scraps.

Practice quilt block found in Grandma's scraps.

Tools For Quilting

For her quilts, these are the materials my grandmother used:

  • Scissors
  • Needles
  • Thread
  • Marking pencil
  • Transfer patterns, marking wheel, or stencil
  • Thimble
  • Measuring tape
  • Seam ripper
  • Pattern
  • Fabric
  • Safety pins

Lost Quilts

Sadly, many of my grandmother's quilts were lost. Just as her own mother's quilts perished in a house fire, so did many that she had made for us, or had given to us over the years.

When our house burned, there were at least thirty quilts, as well as other handmade items, such as crochet, embroidery and cross-stitch done by various family.

Recently, my aunt's house also burned, and she too lost her quilts. Over the years, many visitors to my grandmother's house helped themselves to some of her quilts. At least ten quilts have vanished mysteriously.

Here are a few of the patterns that were in our house:

  • Baby Block--This quilt was made especially for my by my grandmother for my sixteenth birthday.
  • Double Wedding Ring--another quilt made for me specifically, when I was a toddler. The "Double Wedding Ring" was edged in pink, and was supposed to be the first quilt on my bed after I married, to ensure a long, happy union.
  • Delectable Mountains--Made for my mother in her favorite colors; red, black, and white. It was the first time Grandma ever used black in a quilt. She only made one more...the medallion quilt with black and orange. The "Delectable Mountains" quilt was so gorgeous she had to hide it to keep visitors from stealing it.
  • Broken Star
  • Tulip Basket
  • Dogwood Applique
  • Sixteen Patch
  • Nine Patch
  • Honeycomb
  • Delectable Mountains
  • Dutch Puzzle
  • Dresden Plate
  • Grandmother's Flower Garden
Detail of Medallion Quilt

Detail of Medallion Quilt

The Medallion Quilt Showcase

In my opinion, this is the most beautiful quilt ever made by my grandmother. The top is orange and black, with purple accents.

The tannish material around the flowers is a taupe satin, and the arches on the border are created mostly with scraps of satin or silk clothing.

Detail of borders with quilting. Medallion Quilt.

Detail of borders with quilting. Medallion Quilt.

Satin detailing on Medallion quilt

Satin detailing on Medallion quilt

She does not remember what this pattern was called. She said she found it is a quilting magazine. I couldn't find one like it anywhere, so I just call it the Medallion Quilt.

The central motif is all appliqued in several pieces. It has seven different quilting patterns used on various sections.

The only drawback to the color scheme is that whereas she used an emerald green on the top as one of the borders, the back is lined in a muted sage.

One of her signature techniques was to always use whatever fabric was on top for the lining rather than matching or coordinating the colors. This was a habit even when material was plentiful.

It is still a stunning example of hand work. The largest appliqued circles are only about three inches in diameter. If you count each border individually, there are four, each with a different quilted design.

Showpiece Medallion Quilt with satin accents.

Showpiece Medallion Quilt with satin accents.

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