Somewhat weary, and very belatedly, we returned to our summer home in Colorado to enjoy the mountains, powder puff clouds sailing across crisp blue skies, ripping thunderstorms, deer, wild sage – and quilts!  Our neighbor has a passionate interest in the ancient craft, or is it art, of quilting. Her exquisite quilts overflowed their home, so that now she has a light, spacious studio over the garage. Her quilts are a feast for the eyes and several are pictured here with her permission.

I’ve long been interested in quilting and, in another life, I too might have been a quilter. It takes persistence, precision, an eye for color and detail and, in the case of hand sewn quilts, intricate stitching. Quilts have a top layer, often pieced from a variety of fabrics, old or new, a layer of filling and a backing. The fabric sandwich is over-sewn, often in complicated designs. Inspired by Sheri’s quilts I was eager to find out more and was all the more intrigued to realize that my own grandmothers had a role to play in the evolution of quilting.

Quilt Artist, Sherri

Sheri with one of her qulits

Quilt Artist, Sherri and Me

Sheri and me with one of her qulits

Quilt Artist, Sherri

Sheri with her Award Winning Holiday Quilt

Quilting is an ancient art dating back to the origins of fabric at least to 3400 BCE and most likely considerably earlier. The Crusaders brought the practice to the West during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries CE noting that their adversaries wore quilted garments under their armor for added protection and to prevent rust!

Colonists brought their quilts to the US and most likely imported more when they had sufficient means, but it is a myth to imagine the early settlers piecing their own quilts. The effort to survive precluded time to sew other than for repairs, and material was in short supply. The earliest looms produced only narrow strips of (usually wool) fabric.  Unthinkable to cut these  precious strips into patches.  The few quilts that were produced were made of these strips sewn together in a uniform color. Gradually, all of this changed due to the availability of cotton, (thanks to the exploitation of slave labor,) and the industrial Revolution that introduced mechanized broadlooms. My grandmothers, Martha and Edith both left school at thirteen and fourteen to “work down the mill” in order to help support their families. Together with her mother, Martha operated three looms earning each a little extra income.  Edith, who had all the makings of a scholar and hated the mill’s racket, posted a fiendishly difficult crossword puzzle on her loom.  Figuring out the clues helped pass the time, and is a talent she passed to my mother, but only tangentially to me!

Those of you who have read Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings, will remember that quilting was an activity for many female slaves.  It’s said they picked cotton during the day and stitched quilts at night. Perhaps the poor light makes this questionable.  Nonetheless, some slaves were seamstresses for their owners’ families in the days before mass production of clothing.  This gave them access to fabric scraps that they incorporated into quilts, some portraying their stories. It’s also believed that quilts played a role in the Underground Railway, (the network of routes and safe houses to transport slaves to freedom). While it’s doubtful that safe houses displayed log cabin quilts on their fences, quilts were used as secret code in other ways. Slaves were prohibited to read and write and so looked for clues in quilt blocks or patterns.  Amongst others, “Tumbling Blocks” meant pack up, “Monkey Wrench”, bring tools, “North Star” and “Wild Geese,” head north to Canada and safety, and “Bow Tie”, expect a gift of clothes.

Underground Railroad Quilt Symbols

Quilting flourished especially after installment payment plans were offered on home sewing machines, making the whole process quicker and easier.  Quilts continued to evolve with the introduction of new fabrics, colors, patterns and designs such as crazy and abstract quilts and their artistry was recognized as they were displayed in museums and art galleries.

At least since the Civil War quilts have been used to raise money and awareness. Contemporary quilts that touch the heart include the AIDS Awareness quilt and the quilt commemorating the death of George Floyd.

Aids Quilt

Section of AIDS  Awareness Quilt

George FLoyd Quilts

Quilts commemorating the death of George Floyd

Quilting reflects our changing lives, perhaps there will come a day when Chris and I commission our neighbor to make a Salt Spray and Aspens quilt, golden aspens, dark pines and mountains in the pattern, waves, palm trees and manatees in the quilting. Amazing! If it happens, I’ll be sure to let you know.

End Notes

Feast your eyes on Sherri’s quilts.

News Flash!

Watch out for the relaunch of Blisters and Blessings under the new title, Tracking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, with the subtitle, In Pursuit of the Headless Saint  Memories of Blisters and Blessings. Check out the new cover!

Tracking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela by Jean Goulden

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