Text by D. Spalding
Many centuries ago, people learned that they could keep themselves warm by putting layers of material together to make clothing, coverings, and bedding: in Latin, the word for quilt (“calcite”) meant “stuffed sack.” In the past, quilting was not considered an art, because it was a necessity. The textile industry was not developed and there was no central heating, so quilts were the only way to keep warm. When it became possible to buy machine-made blankets, quilting was no longer a necessary skill.
In the 1960s quilting became trendy as an art form, its comeback coinciding, ironically, with the women’s liberation movement. I cannot hear the term ‘quilt’ without being flooded with memories of my grandmother, who lived independently until the ripe old age of 106 in an isolated rural community where most people had a very low income. Quilting was a necessity in this community, and women got together at the church hall to quilt. Since my grandmother did not get out much in the winter, she looked forward to spring when she could socialize at these quilting “bees” with her friends. During my childhood, I spent my summers with Granny and was fascinated by her vast knowledge and skills. Her philosophy, resulting from the times she lived in, was that anything you make with your own hands is superior to what you purchase, and I think this is why she took on the task of showing me how to quilt. This was not an easy job as I am severely left-handed; even my mother had early on recognized the hopelessness of trying to teach me hand skills. But Granny did not live to be 106 without being headstrong. She was determined I would quilt, and she never gave up on me.
Traditionally, girls were taught needle skills at age five or six, so in 1947, when I was five years old, Granny began the arduous task of helping me become a woman who could take pride in her needlework skills. I loved being with my grandmother, and my ineptness with a needle did not interfere with the bonding that took place during these lessons, which were extensive. There were three phases to quilting: piecing material for the top of the quilt; then layering the top, batting, and material for the bottom; and finally binding the layers together.
In preparation for the quilting bees, Granny would get lambs’ wool in the fall from a neighbour, and in spring she would spend days soaking and washing the wool, which was dirty and smelly. After the wool was dry, I would help to untangle it by pulling a carding rake through it to make sure it was smooth and clean. The wool was used for filler or “batting” in between the top and bottom material. Sometimes Granny used batting made of goose down feathers. She saved the designs from flour bags and colorful bits of rags or cloths, and I used to help her collect old pieces of cloth for the quilt top. We would wash the pieces of cloth, iron out the wrinkles, and cut them into different shapes, which we then sewed together. Although Granny could have purchased material, she would not give up the old way of quilting and took pride in the design created by the bits and pieces of cloth that became the top of the quilt.
Granny would spend hours teaching me how to do basic stitches. After I learned to thread a needle and to stitch (if you could call it that) I was allowed to go with her to the quilting bee. I couldn’t wait to go because all my cousins would be there. After a winter of relative isolation there were many interesting stories going around the table, so it was never boring. At the quilting bee, the backing for the quilt was clamped on a wooden frame, a layer of wool was spread out over it, and finally the quilt top was laid over all. After pinning these three layers together, the women would begin sewing them. Most of the ladies would look at what the children were doing and show us how to make even stitches. Unfortunately, none of the ladies was left-handed and my stitches were a disaster. After much conversation, the group decided I should learn to stitch with my right hand. However, it didn’t take long for the ladies to realize that I could not create even stitches with either hand. The other children could not help but feel superior to me and they teased me about my sewing. The only person who did not give up on me was Granny. She did cheat a bit, as she would guide my hand in order to keep the stitches even. She would then proudly show these squares to the members of the quilting bee.