Thursday, October 11, 2012
Bluegrass Pride: Quilting provides valuable lessons —make something old, worn into new
By Maxine Rudder
Included in my short list of treasured personal items are the handmade quilts made by my mother and grandmother and passed down to me. Some are old. Some are new. Some are made of carefully chosen colors and intricate patterns. Others are what my Grandmother called “everyday” quilts, made of scraps of old clothing that tell the story of my family. These are by far my favorites.
(Photo from Flickr)
As a child, going to my grandmother’s house was always a treat, but some of the visits I remember most include quilting days. Mom and Grandma, both talented seamstresses and pattern makers, would first draw a pattern on large pieces of paper, usually one or more large paper grocery bags that had been saved for just this purpose. These pattern pieces would then be transferred to thin pieces of cardboard that came from empty cereal or cracker boxes — it was many years later that I learned about fiberboard and box board —producing a template that was used over and over to cut the many pieces of cloth needed to make a quilt.
Next came the magical part for me — sorting through the old clothing and unused scraps of material found in the “rag bag.” As we went through this treasure chest of old, discarded, and outgrown items, it was my job to be sure that all the buttons, snaps, hooks, and zippers were removed. These could be reused to make new clothes for various members of our family. As textures and colors were selected we would talk about the history of each one; Mom’s old dress, Grandma’s old skirt, an uncle’s old pants, and on and on. Just hearing these stories surely made these quilts warmer than any store bought quilt could ever be!
After all the pieces for the quilt top had been cut and sewn together to make the design, it was time to make the bottom for the quilt. My grandmother saved flour sacks and old sheets for this purpose. Occasionally, the bottom would be made of large pieces of colored fabric but that was the exception, not the rule.
The middle of our quilt was made of old blankets that were too thin to use or feed sacks that had been sewn together. It was very rare that money was spent on an everyday quilt to purchase cotton to put between the layers. That expenditure was reserved for the quilts made to “put away for the kids and grandkids when they grow up.”
Another design feature that differed depending on the intended use of the quilt was the method used for the actual quilting. Special quilts were hand quilted by the adults with tiny stitches and sometimes complicated patterns, but everyday quilts were “tacked.” This process involved making large stitches in the quilt, cutting the thread between the stitches and tying the ends together. This was my favorite because even hands too young to make tiny stitches could tie knots.
Weeks and months later, lying in my grandmother’s old feather bed under these quilts, Grandma and I would play a game where I would try to match the stories with the different pieces of material. It always made me feel a special connection to my family when I would find a piece of material from an item that had belonged to me.
Many years have passed and I am now the grandmother. I find myself looking at my quilts for special pieces of material so I can relive the experiences and memories with my granddaughter. She already has the Dutch Doll quilt that was made by my parents.
I also realize that I learned valuable lessons while quilting as a child. Use everything as long as possible and then find a way to make it into something new. Don’t throw things away because they are old just so you can buy something new. My mother and grandmother never used the words – reuse, reduce and recycle but they demonstrated their application everyday in ways that even a small girl could understand.
It wasn’t a new concept. It was a way of life. Every time I encourage a teacher to start a scratch paper box for paper used on one side or collect discarded items that could be used for art projects, I remember my grandmother’s “rag bag” and the lessons I learned from quilting.
Maxine Rudder currently serves as the Deputy Director for Bluegrass PRIDE. Maxine graduated from Eastern Kentucky University with a Masters in Education and a Rank I in Supervision and Secondary Principalship. She spent 28 years in public education as both a teacher and administrator. Maxine is involved with the Kentucky Green and Healthy Schools Program, Kentucky Environmental Literacy Plan Alliance, Fayette County Public School Sustainability Council, Kentucky River Water Trail Alliance, USGBC Green Schools Advocacy Team, and Kentucky Association for Environmental Education.