The Free Motion Quilting Project: The Quilts Left Behind

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Quilts Left Behind

Growing up, my family had about 10 quilts made by various grandmothers and great grandmothers that ranged from 20 to probably 60 years old.

All of these quilts were stored in the hall closet, folded roughly and squished into the shelves wherever they fit best.  They were also washed, in the washing machine, as often as they were used.

It's no surprise those quilts are in pretty bad shape today.

free motion quilting | Leah Day

Of course, these quilts were made to be USED: dragged around the house, slept on, played with, washed roughly, and generally abused.  I have no doubt that my grandmothers and great grandmothers made these quilts for this purpose and might not have understood the idea of hanging quilts on a wall.

The one thing that strikes me, and the reason I bring this issue up today, is these are some of the only pieces of these women left.  They must have had clothes and jewelry and photo albums and a whole lifetime's worth of dishes, but what is left?  Only their quilts.

Unfortunately, while the quilts are here, I have no idea who actually made them.  No name tags were ever stitched to the back of them, so they could have easily been created by my Great Grandma Harrison or one of her many sisters, or they might have come from the Gray or Webb side of my family.

I have no way of knowing if these quilts are even what I think they are - a link to the women of my past.  They could just as easily be relics of a distant cousin three times removed!

I'm not meaning to be depressing here, but looking through the closed today, I was struck by just how little I know about these quilts and it made me sad.

No, they weren't treated well, so no, they're not in the best shape.  But it would be so nice to know who made them.  Even though I probably never met her, and if I asked other family members, I would only learn the vaguest details of her life, it would be something I would love to know.

I believe quilts link us to the past.  Growing up sleeping under them, building tent forts in the living room, seeing sunlight play through the beautiful piecing - all of it contributed to my love of fabric and quilting as an adult.

What's the point of all this rambling?

We're getting into the middle of August, and I don't know about you, but I'm starting to feel that insatiable pull the impending holiday season brings.  How many quilts will you make this fall to give away to family and friends for Christmas?

While I know it might take some extra time and I know you might not be in the habit of it, please take the time to tag your quilts.

At least write your name somewhere on the back because in 20 or 40 or 60 years, someone else you never knew might have your quilt.  Give her someone to thank for making it.  At least share your name.

Let's go quilt,



  1. Thank you for this post :o)

    My grandmother made quilts as a way to make a little extra money during the depression. I have 3 of her quilts, one has fabric from my blue/white polka-dot dress when I was in the 3rd grade (I'm 65 now). At least I know that dear Gramma made them.

    But there are stacks of quilts at the local junk shop, selling for $80 or so. I often wonder why people will keep their grandma's silverware, glassware, and knick-knacks --- but they'll give away or sell her quilts. I don't understand...

  2. You are sew right Leah! I confess to be guilty of omitting labels at times, but I'm getting better, thank you for the reminder!

  3. I love this post - it is EXACTLY how I feel about quilts that I've inherited or even ones I've seen in collections or museums.

    Sometimes there's a risk of me thinking "oh, this is no big deal. It's just a play quilt and I'm not the important thing here."

    That line of thinking is so wrong.

    Thank you for writing about it!

    Take care and keep on quilting!

  4. Up until my granddaughter's baby quilt, I never added a label or my name. If the quilt was a gift I either quilted or embroidered the recipients' name(s) and date into the front of the quilt and left it at that. We do need to label our quilts, and adding a message to the recipient that it was created in love, especially for them, adding dates - date completed, wedding or birth date, any other relevant info. I also add where the quilt was created to current labels. It doesn't matter if it's a utility quilt or handquilted heirloom wedding quilt - it needs identification! Now that I'm learning FMQ I machine quilt names onto the quilts - my daughter's recent quilt had all the info - her name, my name, where created, and the date, all FMQ'd in the border of a block design - plus a sewn on label on the back. A quilt thief can remove the sewn-on label, but would be unlikely to ever notice the FMQ identification since it's on a patterned fabric and not obvious to anyone who doesn't study the quilt closely.

  5. I never (and I do mean NEVER) label my quilts. It seems unnecessary since my assumption is that the quilt will be loved, literally to pieces, and the scraps discarded. A co-worker constantly grouses at me about this so I might sign my name to it, but since it's a fairly sloppy signature, no one's going to know anyway. I do see your point; I just don't know that my quilts will stand the test of time for it to really matter.

  6. Thank you for bringing this subject to the fore! It really canNOT be repeated too many times! Quilts survive the test of time and carry with them the heart of the creator and the aura of the day they were "birthed"....they mustn't be passed down as unidentified orphans!!

  7. Wonderful good advice! I have one quilt that my MIL made. she called it her "12 year quilt" because it took her 12 years to finish it! Grandma's Flower Garden design--All hand pieced and quilted! it has a tag on the back from the quilt show that I entered it in a few years back and her name! It will eventually go to a particular granddaughter who will cherish it!

  8. I agree Leah. You can't always guarantee that the person you gave the quilt to will have it or pass the information down. Whenever I see old quilts in antique stores or other places I wonder who made it and how it ended up there and not with family. Thanks for reminding us all to label our quilts.

  9. I totally agree with QuiltnMama.

    Our grandmothers and great grandmothers made far more quilts for utility then for show. I truly think it is a 21st century blogging thing to be so hung up on labeling a quilt.

    I really do not concern myself with a quilt lasting more than 50 years. I make them for gifts or charity. I am not sad when I see a quilt in the thrift store unlabeled. I get more excitement out of the pattern, colors and fabric. Having a name and date to me does not do me any good.

    If I find a quilt from a "Ethel Smith" made in 1932, should I hunt her family down? If I buy it from a thrift/antique store or estate sale, clearly the quilt was not important enough to the family. Lets face it. Silver, china etc are far more valuable to most folks, then quilts. Very few valuable quilts are around today for the average person to own. If they are, they are in a museum, and many of those were donated by family.

    blessings, jill

  10. It breaks my heart too when I see discarded quilts for sale at Antique malls. I want to know the story. I am a folded triangle from a square in the corner labeler. I learned it from "Stashbusters" yahoo group. It isn't big but it is my way of doing my part to leave a quilt legacy for my grandchildren. I feel the same about journals of my pioneer ancestors and Pictures. They need labels too. I also made a quilt book of my quilts and my SIL made one of my MIL quilts.

  11. I have a crocheted blanket that I think was made by one of my grandmothers but I'm not sure. Could have been made by another family member. It's even more difficult to label something knitted or crocheted but I really do wish i knew who made it. It goes through my mind every time I see it.

  12. I've started to label my quilts more often.

    I still have a hard time labeling the quilts I give as gifts. They aren't "mine" so I feel bad putting my name on them. Even more so if I don't know the baby's name yet (when a baby quilt) because THEIR name doesn't even get on there.

    So far, of my gift quilts, two have been labeled- and both have gone to my parents. With their name, as the recipient, my name as the maker, and the year. I figure that is good enough for "history".

    I need to go back and put labels on the quilts I have in the house. I've only been seriously quilting for about a year, so the back log isn't so great I can't get them labeled.

  13. I label all of my quilts. They go to a special person in my life and I want both of our names on the quilt.

  14. I couldn't have said it better myself. We make history with each quilt we make. So why not label them and be proud.

  15. I have started to label all of my quilts and I agree it is an important part of the process, Even if the quilt is going to be loved literally to pieces it is still a special part of someones life!


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