To date, I (Dave) have been the author of all our website posts. However, there is one traditional folkway skill we practice that I am not qualified to discuss—the fine art of quilting. That is Barb’s forte. Most recently, she was hired by a local attorney to replicate the hand-sewn “Pride of West Virginia” quilt that has been displayed in the Grant County Bank main office in downtown Petersburg for many years. Although she was raised a city girl in Schenectady, New York, she had learned to appreciate quilting well before we met and decades before we decided to create Peeper Pond Farm. Recognizing that our lifestyle skills training efforts would be incomplete if we did not address this subject, I will turn over my trusty pen to Barb so that she can explain how she came to cherish it and why it remains a valuable traditional living skill. Here is her story in her own words…
I began sewing during my elementary school days, a skill I learned from my mother. She made many of my early school clothes and taught me how it was done. At one point during my professional years, I had sewn probably half of the clothes in my closet. It was during my college days that my interest in quilting emerged, after seeing a crazy quilt that my roommate had made during our 4-week Christmas holiday. I went so far as to cut squares from left over fabrics that I had, using all varieties of fabric (polyester, wool, corduroy, etc.) and patterns (plaids, prints, solids, etc.). Although cutting the squares was are far as I got, I learned a lot about the right fabric choices with that project! My next attempt during the early 1980’s was much more successful, and in fact that quilt covers the twin bed in my sewing area today. My interest in quilting has been sporadic over the years, but is now almost overwhelming. Ask Dave – whenever we make plans to visit a new community, all I want to know is if there is a quilt store in the area. However, I have made nearly 25 quilts, ranging from lap size to king size, 5 baby quilts, 5 quilts in honor of our local veterans, Christmas tree skirts, countless pot holders and table runners, and 3 wall hangings during those years. Am I an expert? Not by a long shot, but I know enough be dangerous, and some of my pieces have won ribbons at the local county fairs.
Quilting is an art form that had its beginnings in Medieval Europe and Asia. Patchwork quilting, as we know it today, is mostly an American craft born more from need than anything else. Patches of fabric cut from old, worn or outgrown clothing or feed and flour sacks were stitched together in a pleasing pattern such as the traditional patterns of 9-Patch, Rail Fence, Ohio Star, Windmill, Bear Paw, Hour Glass, and Carpenter’s Wheel. They were then layered with some form of batting, probably an old blanket, and another piece of fabric used as a backing. These layers were then sewn together and used for bedding and worn around the shoulders for warmth.
During the time of American Westward Expansion, pioneer women would have been working on their patchwork while their covered wagons were following the Oregon or Chisholm trails, as a means of passing the time and preparing for their new homes. Over time, the patterns became more detailed, and the craft of “quilting” – stitching an attractive pattern through all three layers to anchor the pieces together and extend the life of the quilt – became traditional. All of this work would have been done by hand sewing! In more recent years, quilting has extended beyond its traditional uses to also become an art form, using specially designed fabrics and contemporary patterns, and using special machines to stitch the quilting, even to do very intense embroidery in the project. Today, you can go to a quilt show in any city or town, and find pieces that replicate what great-grandmother may have done, or pieces that should be hanging in some museum of modern art. You will also find more practical items, such as tote bags, purses, back packs, slipcovers, pillows, dresser scarves, placemats and coasters, made from quilting fabrics, batting, and backing together.
But let’s clarify some vocabulary here. A “quilt” is the finished product, composed of a top, batting, and backing. The top, which is decorative, has been “pieced” using fabric that has been cut into various shapes like squares, rectangles, triangles, and circles and arcs. The filling is the “batting”, and can be all polyester, a blend of polyester and cotton, all cotton, all wool, all silk, or even bamboo. The batting provides the loft and warmth, and controls the drape, or how the quilt hangs, smoothly or sharply. The “backing” completes the sandwich which becomes your quilt. It is then either “knotted” or “quilted” to bind them together and prevent the layers from shifting. Knotting a quilt is done by tying knots through the three layers in the quilt with thread, yarn, embroidery floss, or ribbon. Quilting is the decorative stitching done either by hand or machine, which does a more complete job of securing the three layers together. The design can be either very simple, such as straight lines back and forth or up and down the quilt, or very intense, with patterns of feathers or shells or waves or pebbles or even animals, toys or tools, virtually whatever your mind can dream up stitched into your quilt.
Among the most memorable of the quilts I have made is the one that I call “Grandma’s quilt”. My grandmother had given me a box of squares that she had stashed in a closet, which had been appliqued with the “Prairie Rose” pattern. Whether she or another member of her family had made the blocks, or if she had purchased them at an antique show, I do not know. I held onto those for some years, and eventually decided to put them together in a quilt to give to Grandma for Christmas 1993. As we were living more than 700 miles from home, I didn’t get to enjoy the moment when she opened her gift, but I understand that she was very pleased with it. Another favorite is the Christmas Cardinal wall hanging that goes up right after Thanksgiving every year, and comes down some time after Christmas. It shows a cardinal sitting on a tree branch in the center, surrounded by blocks in the Log Cabin pattern, a very old and traditional pattern. I am also quite proud of the quilts that I made for the veterans at my church. For each of these, I purchased a preprinted panel depicting a patriotic scene, stitched three sets of color coordinated strips around each panel, and then knotted the panel, and “stitched in the ditch” (along the seam lines of the strips) to complete the quilts. I may not have cut my fabric into shapes that got patched together, but adding the colorful strips, and knotting and stitching in the ditch qualify these as quilts.
If you are interested in learning to do patchwork quilting, I recommend that you find a fabric store that specializes in quilting and is able to help you get started, or even gives classes. There are also a number of internet sites and programs on Public Television that are very helpful no matter your level of skill. There are many magazines and books that can also teach you this very rewarding craft, available in stores and possibly your public library. Choose a simple pattern and project to get started with, such as a 9-Patch or Rail Fence pot holder or baby quilt. Limit yourself to no more than 3 fabrics that are pleasing to you, and purchase the best quality fabric that you can. At a quilt store, fabric will be about $12/yard, and is normally worth the price. You can purchase fabric at discounted prices on many websites, and they are often the same fabric that you can purchase at the quilt shop. But if you are limited by budget, Wal-Mart, Hobby Lobby and JoAnn Fabrics carry perfectly acceptable options. There also may be a quilters’ guild or club in your area that you can join to learn additional quilting techniques and skills. Since retiring to our farm, I have joined the Sew & Sews quilt guild in Franklin, WV.
There are three other rules to follow. Quilters all over will argue about which is the most important. You will find constant references to an “accurate ¼ inch seam allowance” in every project, and many will tell you this is the most important factor. However, I argue that being accurate in your cutting is the most important. If your patches are cut poorly, no “accurate ¼ inch seam” is going to save you! The carpenter’s rule of “measure twice, cut once” applies equally to quilting. (Now if I would only learn that and remember it!) The third rule is to purchase the best equipment and supplies that you can. A good sewing machine will become your best friend. You don’t need a fancy expensive machine to start with, but you may want to upgrade to a better one as you become more involved in this hobby. Also buy twice as many pins and spools of thread as you think you will need!
I could go on for many more pages about the art of patchwork quilting. There is so much to discover and learn. I hope I have piqued your interest in pursuing another aspect of the self-reliant lifestyle skills that we have chosen to preserve and promote. Please feel free to contact me if you have questions or would like an individual lesson. Also, if you will refer to our website, www.peeperpondfarm.com, you will find photos of many of my completed projects.