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A close up of a pink quilt with a hand sewing.
Detail of Mabel Brown Working on a Windmill Quilt. Lyntha Scott Eiler, 1978. (Coal River Folklife Collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress).

Quilts and Quilting: Piecing Together Family History

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The winter is the perfect time to take a break and get cozy. What’s better when it’s dreary outside than wrapping up in a blanket with a mug of tea or coffee and a good book? You might grab a new fleece throw or an old quilt to stay warm. Growing up, my favorite quilt was a patchwork one my grandmother had made out of my mom’s old shirts and sweatshirts. It was like a little map of her life, full of her stories. Both of my grandmothers quilted, and I was lucky enough to receive quilts from them. Thinking about the heirlooms my grandmothers created made me curious about what sort of quilt-related material the Library of Congress might have in its collection.

Close up of a quilt with a white background and colorful flower embroidery.
[Quilt from] Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Carol M. Highsmith, April 5, 2010. (Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress).
There are many such resources, including this blog on the Gee’s Bend quilters, images taken by the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression, and photographs of quilts made for competitions such as the Lands’ End All-American Quilt Contest. Faced with such an abundance, I quickly narrowed in on the Quilt and Quiltmaking collection from the American Folklife Center. In 1978, the American Folklife Center and the National Park Service partnered to complete the Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project. During this project, several women were interviewed about their quilting. While listening to these interviews, I discovered a common link. Just like with my family, these quilters shared their craft with their mothers, grandmothers, and grandchildren.

Many of the quiltmakers learned the craft from their female relatives. Listen to a couple of the clips below to hear their stories.

A red, white, and blue quilt with a star pattern.
Lone Star quilt, detail. Quilted by Zenna Todd. Photographed by Geraldine Niva Johnson, 1978. (BR8-GJ44-14, Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress).

Maggie Shockley’s mother taught her and her sisters how to quilt. Her mother didn’t have a lot of extra fabric, so she gave Maggie paper cutouts and little scraps to practice with.

Similarly, Ila Patton learned to quilt from her mother and grandmother when she was a teenager. In her interview, she discusses learning how to piece fabric together to create a patchwork quilt.

Zenna Todd’s mother only used a technique called “tacking.” However, Zenna wanted to learn how to quilt, so when she got married, she asked her mother-in-law for lessons. She was happy to help, but accidentally left out an important bit of information! For Zenna, this created a humorous learning experience.

Like Zenna, Mamie Bryan learned how to quilt from her mother-in-law after she was married. Mamie asked her to demonstrate a specific design called a “Log Cabin,” but like many of the women interviewed, she decided to develop her own technique.

Detail of a quilt with rectangular patterns.
Log Cabin quilt, detail. Quilt by Mamie Bryan. Photographed by Lyntha Scott Eiler, 1978. (BR8-LE32-4, Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress).

Many interviewees explained that quilting was a solo activity they did in their spare time or to fill up the slow and quiet winter months. Some women explained that they had a hard time gathering a group to quilt together. However, many of them also talked about the joy they felt when they were able to quilt with others.

Three women quilting and chatting.
Ilene Flint, Vera Stanley, Ruth Spangler on side of quilt frame. Meadows of Dan Baptist Church Quilting Group. Terry Eiler, 1978. (BR8-TE56-3, Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress).

Donna Choate explains that she never quilted in a group, before talking about the quilting parties her mother used to hold. These gatherings were so productive that the women could sew a quilt or two in a day.

Similarly, in the clip below, Maggie Shockley talks about learning how to quilt and quilting with her mother and sisters as a teenager. She remembers gathering around the quilting frame as a group to work together and carefully stitching.

Colorful quilt made of many fabrics in a square pattern.
Block quilt, detail. Quilted by Donna Choate. Photographed by Geraldine Niva Johnson, 1978. (BR8-GJ30-12, Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress).

Whether they quilted together or separately, many of the women interviewed talked about how their quilts tied together generations of their family. Quilters drew inspiration from the pieces their mothers and grandmothers had designed and tried to pass their knowledge onto their children and grandchildren. While they didn’t always use the same technique as their relatives, the women interviewed clearly valued the knowledge that had been passed on to them.

Quilt with a white base and a colorful ring pattern.
Double Wedding Ring quilt, detail. Quilted by Lura Stanley. Photographed by Terry Eiler, 1978. (BR8-TE44-2, Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress).

When Lura Stanley was stitching her first quilt, she chose a basket pattern to mimic one her great-grandmother made, honoring her memory. However, she explains, she didn’t sew the same way her grandmother or mother did. Lura preferred a different technique that she thought looked nicer than the way her mother quilted.

In another part of her interview, Lura talks about trying to teach her granddaughter to quilt. Like many of the women interviewed, Lura started her granddaughter’s lessons with piecework. Her granddaughter was busy with a lot of hobbies, but Lura hoped to pass on this family tradition to her.

Blue and white patterned quilt.
Star quilt, detail. Quilted by Lura Stanley. Photographed by Terry Eiler, 1978. (BR8-TE42-6, Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress).

While quilting was a hobby for many of the women interviewed, it also connected their past, present, and future. Although I never learned the skill from my grandmothers, I have many memories of the projects they worked on. What activities do you do with your parents or grandparents? Is there any type of craft they do that you would like to learn? These cold winter months might be the perfect opportunity to work with your relatives to learn a new skill.

Black and white photo of girls sewing a quilt.
Quilting a quilt for Cantonmownt hospital. August 1918. (American National Red Cross photograph collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress).

Activities:

  • Drawing inspiration from the quilts in the collection, draw your own quilt design. For added fun, create a paper quilt from construction paper by cutting out shapes and gluing them together.
  • Work with your family to come up with questions to ask your older relatives about their hobbies. Conduct your own oral history interviews with them and save their answers. You might find out something new! Learn more about how to conduct oral history interviews of family members here.
A group of women crafting on a porch.
Home economics and home management class for adults. May 1939, Marion Post Wolcott. (Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress).

Additional Resources:

Comments (2)

  1. When my son was in the 5th grade gifted program there was a student who had lost his mother to AIDS. The teacher, knowing I was a quilter, asked me if I could come up with something to help the students honor his mother. The kids made a wonderful quilt square to be added to the huge AIDS quilt that was traveling the country. Part of the quilt was displayed in our city and we went to see it. I was overwhelmed with emotion looking at representations of all of the lives lost. Quilting made this moving experience possible and helped us honor his mother. I can’t say enough about how powerful this was.

    • Thank you for sharing this moving story. I’m so glad you were able to forge a meaningful connection with this post.

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