Quilts have been popular for many generations. Early quilters used scraps of fabric left over from making clothing for the family. They arranged the left over pieces into an attractive pattern, creating wonderful, warm coverings for their beds.
After the women had done all the household chores, fed the family, washed the dishes, put the children to bed, it was time to sew. In the evening, while it was still light, assembling a quilt would not have been too much of a chore, but when the sun went down, which was usually when the lady of the house had time to sit, she would have to sit near an oil lamp or a lantern of some sort so she would have nearly adequate light to see her stiches.
Sometimes patterns were passed down from one generation to another, sometimes quilt patterns would be shown in a newspaper, or later, in books and magazines designed for the purpose.
Ladies in those early days did not have many opportunities to socialize. Church gatherings, barn raisings and family reunions often comprised the time ladies had to spend together. Someone got the idea that if they would work together on a quilt or two, the work would go much faster that is when quilting bees were formed.
All quilts in the early years were pieced and quilted by hand. Each scrap of fabric was carefully cut, then assembled. Usually the quilt was totally pieced before the ladies would assemble to do the final quilting.
The ladies would gather at a home or even in a church to assemble the top to the batting and backing fabric. It was possible to finish more than one quilt in an afternoon, if the quilters were studious. Quilting frames would be set up, each quilt stretched over a frame, then the ladies would gather around the quilt to sew those tiny stiches which made each quilt so special.
Quilts were made to give to other members of the family at times, but sometimes a quilt was made for a particular reason. There is one quilt in the collection of the Greene County Historical Society which was made by a group of church ladies. This particular quilt was assembled with names of individuals and families embroidered on the squares. When the quilt was finally completed, it was given to the minister and his wife as a gift. It was handed down from one generation to the next until finally it was donated as a piece of Greene County history where it is displayed from time to time. Quilts were also made as money-making projects for church ladies groups.
Feed sacks were popular fabrics at one time. When manufacturers realized that ladies liked the material in which the feed came, they began to put the feed into colorful sacks. When emptied, and laundered, the material was most suitable for use for clothing and the excess pieces would often find their way into a quilt.
As more and more fabrics became available, so did the desire to make more quilts. Pattern books were sold with detailed instructions to create a quilt. Today’s modern quilters have many hundreds of patterns from which to choose, and a large quantity of various fabrics which could make a beautiful bed quilt, table covering or wall hanging.
Antique quilts are highly treasured, especially those passed down from generation to generation. Owners take great pride in showing off a quilt made by a great-grandmother. In the early days, usually it was only the ladies who picked up a needle, but today’s quilters are both male and female, and many quilts today are constructed on a sewing machine.
It has been said that quilts were an important guide on the Underground Railroad, however, there is no documented evidence of that. Stories abound about quilts having secret messages, such as the “coast is clear” or “not today, go elsewhere,” but there is no written evidence that this was the case.
Many Greene County residents helped those slaves who “followed the North star” to escape to freedom. It is supposed that many of the slaves came by night, to be less visible, so a quilt hanging outside at night would not be readily seen, but those so called safe houses had many ways of showing hospitality for a short time as they made their way further North.
In the early days of our country, quilts were made of necessity as blankets for feather beds. Today’s quilter usually makes quilts for the pleasure and relaxation it gives, as well as seeing the happiness of the recipient when one of these beautiful creations is given away.
If you are fortunate enough to have a quilt which has been handed down through your family, enjoy it, and think of the loving hands which took so many hours to create this work of art. Handle with care, because the fabric may be more fragile than today’s fabrics, but don’t put it away all the time, get it out to enjoy, and never put it in storage in a plastic bag. Even with more recent made quilt – remember the quilter spent time making this work of art especially for you and perhaps someday it too will become an heirloom.
Joan Baxter is a historical columnist and area resident.