When a Quilt is More Than a Quilt

I have a collection of homemade quilts that I keep in a glass-front cabinet. Other than using them as decorative throws, I rarely use them because they don’t fit my queen- and king-sized beds. They fit only the double beds of their day. Every now and then I begin to think it’s time to clean out some of the debris from years ago. It’s time to move on. But not the quilts! Never the quilts.

Usually once a month when I was a child, from late fall through winter, after the farm crops harvested and disposed, the house scrubbed clean and we kids were all off to school, Mama went to quilting bees. My olders siblings usually went home after school to attend to chores and enjoy the rare hometime without adults. I could either go home with them, or I could join her at her quilting bee by riding whichever school bus passed the home of the hostess that month. Most of the time I chose to go to the quilting bees, and indeed looked forward to those outings.

In Mrs. Polhill’s house there was a piano in the front parlour. As long as I “played” quietly, she allowed me to use it. Once her granddaughter from the city was there, and after my initial shyness wore off, she taught me little tunes to play. Before anything, however, I always went to the kitchen to chose a snack of whatever I wanted to eat from the leftovers on a big, covered table there. Always there was an array of  cakes and pies, as well as other foods from the traditional potluck the women brought, and always there was home brewed sweet tea in giant-sized pickle jars.
One of my favorite things to do, however, was to sneak underneath the quilt that was stretched onto a fabric-edged wooden frame hanging from the ceiling by strategically placed hooks. Quilting began at the squares around the edges, then two of the side frames were rolled towards each other until the middle was reached, and all the squares were finished one by one. As a new quilt was begun, there was quite a space left beneath for a child to play.
Sometimes, because of my “younger” eyes, I was called on to thread their quilting needles, while they quilted and shared gossip and jokes that I didn’t understand. I’d busy myself picking up wooden thread spools and other things they dropped. Sometimes I’d find a stray fly swatter and I’d swat a few flies, and as they progressed, they soon forgot I was there, and I was privy to raunchy jokes everybody  would laugh at. Even Mama, so serious and solemn most of the time, was a little carefree surrounded by all her quilting friends.  

The ladies would leave one by one near the end of the day, in time to go home to prepare supper for their families, but not before deciding who had enough quilt tops done and would be ready to host the next quilting bee. The hostess would be the proud owner of 3 or 4 new quilts that seemed to get fancier and more color-coordinated each year. 
The ladies are as clear in my mind today as ever, and it’s hard to believe that all are gone now — Miz Clarinda Pope, who died in 2000 after reaching the ripe old age of 100, Miz Lizzie Rump, Miss Myrtice Flanagan. They were good Christian women, pillars of their community, but they showed a little different side of themselves when they were there in those rooms full of friends and quilts, sides I often wonder if their husbands and families ever saw. It’s just not in me to move on from the memories–more numerous than the pies and cakes, the jars of sweet tea on that covered table, and even the naughty jokes I eavesdropped on during those bygone days–of women just being themselves and not worrying about what others were thinking. 



8 thoughts on “When a Quilt is More Than a Quilt

  1. Terrific quilt memories and good story. You’ve reminded me that I have my grandmother’s quilt, never used, that she made in about 1905 when she was 15 or so. I need to pull it out and take a look again.

  2. What a beautiful quilt! The colors are still so vivid! I have a large star that my mother sewed by hand when she was just a girl. It needs to be put on material and finished but I don’t dare touch it. I treasure it. It is probably 80 years old. I remember sitting under the quilting frames poking the needles back up sometimes too … listening to all the women laugh.

  3. Every time I visit here, I know I’m never going to be disappointed with your words.
    I really enjoyed this post. I “felt” like I was right there with you, under the quilts, listening to the ladies. What a great story!
    And the quilt….that’s just gorgeous! I’ve never done quilting, but I must say, it’s still alive and well here on Cedar Key. A friend of mine goes to a quilting class every Monday evening. Somehow, in this day and age, I find that very refreshing.
    Thanks for your memories, Alice.

  4. You’re fortunate. By the time I came along, most of my grandmother’s quilting was solitary, or with my aunts. My uncle made her quilt frame: two homemade saw horses, notched to fit 2x2s. The quilt was tacked to the crosspieces, and a finished section would be rolled up on it to be out of the way.
    One of the few times I ever saw her really mad was when one of the barn cats decided to have a liter of kittens in the dresser drawer Mamaw had her quilt pieces in.

  5. Powerful story about the bond of women. I’m sorry that I don’t have that type of “regular” group with whom to make quilts, history and friendship.

    Thanks for the reminder. This is something I can remedy – maybe not through quilting as I am sewing challenged.

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