I am often surprised when someone tells me they don’t like to do any type of sewing or needlework. Much like someone saying they don’t like to read, it is a completely foreign concept to me. Needlework of any kind is a dying art, as evidenced by the decline in fabric stores across the country. Some of us, however, are determined to keep that from happening (as evidenced by my fabric stash).
One of my earliest motivations for learning to sew were my grandmothers, Daisy and Nona. Like most women born into the late 1800s, they learned a variety of household arts at their own mother’s knees. Unfortunately, my maternal grandmother, Nona, failed to pass those arts and skills along to her own children. My own mother never learned to sew. She saw no use in it, as it was “so much more convenient” to go to the store and buy what she wanted. Having grown up during the Great Depression, I think she equated homemade clothes and household items with poverty.
Although that artsy gene skipped a generation, it shows up prominently in my own DNA. And thanks to my father I was well schooled on learning to do things for myself — there was no project my father wasn’t willing to tackle. So here I am today, working hard to keep these household arts alive.
Featured here are photos of items that started me down this path. They are quilt blocks that span more than 100 years and five or more generations. In 1926, my grandmother Nona and great-grandmother Dorothy pulled scraps from their own stashes, along with flour sack fabric they had on hand, and created these two sets of blocks. One set is an easily recognizable Dresden Plate. The other is based off a St. Andrews Cross, which makes sense considering my grandmother’s family was from Scotland, having landed here after the Battle of Culloden. My mother, Beatrice, would point at the different fabrics and say “Mama made shirts for Tommy and Lloyd from that fabric,” and “Violet and I had panties made from this one.” Amazingly enough these blocks are in really excellent shape.
When you turn over the blocks and look at the backs, you see the hand stitching. Keep in mind this is long before the invention of neatly labeled clear rulers, self-healing cutting mats, or rotary cutters. Each piece was marked and cut out without any of the tools we deem indispensable today.
What I find interesting about this block is it shows both machine and hand stitches. The stitching on the left is clearly by machine, while you see more uneven lines in the hand-stitched piece on the right. I have no doubt my grandmother Nona used her Singer treadle sewing machine on this one.
I think the St. Andrews blocks fascinate me the most. Take this one, for example. Several years ago I had a certified quilt appraiser look at the blocks. She told me that the black and white fabric was mourning fabric, and probably pre-dated the civil war. Just think about that! These are remnants of fabric owned and used by members of my family more than 150 years ago.
But there is more to the story of these blocks. My great-grandmother Dorothy was bed-bound, having been crippled for many years. While my grandmother cut out the pieces for the blocks, my great-grandmother stitched them together. The two sets of blocks were then set aside for my mother to put together when she was grown. Mom never did, and they passed to me. Somewhere during the intervening years, my older sister, while a little girl, got into the blocks. She decided the Dresden Plates would make ideal doll skirts for her dolls. Two blocks were “altered” to fit her dolls before she was caught.
I have cherished these blocks for many years. These quilt blocks were the reason I learned to quilt, because I wanted to be good enough to do them justice. They are remarkably well preserved, and the two sets of designs will be mixed together to make two full quilts. Ultimately they will be given to my daughter, to be passed onto her children. By they time they are passed to my daughter, their history will span more than seven generations. I think the women who came before me would be proud that their skills, knowledge, and artistry lived on.