There is a long line of seamstresses and quilters on my Mom’s side of the family. Only a generation ago it was a very important part of the culture and everyday life. Women created beautiful works of art that would be used on a daily basis and stood the test of time. The intricate fabric pieces measured, cut and sewn together. The completed top was then added to the middle and back layers and stretched out on a large wooden frame to be sewn together by hand. Daughters were taught at a young age to carry on the tradition.
Most of the quilts today are finished on machines and this doesn’t diminish their beauty but there is something about creating the designs by hand. I learned to quilt, along with my sister, at my Grandma’s when I was about 7 or 8 years old. Three generations sitting around the frame in my Grandma’s front room. I didn’t fully understand the history that came before me at the time but I did know that it was something special and I did enjoy the experience.
My Mom inherited a lot of my Grandma’s projects and fabric when she passed away in 2003. They were packed away and over the years my Mom would go in and find something to start or finish. About 5 years ago she found a box with quilt pieces in it. A lot of pieces. More than enough for a Queen size quilt. She asked me the next time I was there if I would like the quilt. She would get the top ready – most of the pieces and blocks had to be sewn together. After that we would find a space to set up the family quilt frame that was made by my great grandfather for my great grandmother. We would all finish it together, three generations. The granddaughters were the perfect age to learn and she wanted to continue the tradition. I hadn’t quilted since I was a child and it isn’t something that I would have ever thought to do again but I was excited to help, as was my daughter. Shortly after that, in June of 2009, she was diagnosed with cancer. Even with the diagnosis and everything that went with it she worked very hard and showed it off to whomever visited and the homecare workers. I believe this quilt helped to keep her going some days. She finished the top in the beginning of 2010 right before we nearly lost her several times and she spent 5 months off and on in the hospital. We moved her to a new apartment that May and made sure that the quilt was carefully packed and available for her, along with a few other projects. Sewing became so important to her at that time because her mobility was limited for most things and she wanted to pass on the skill to her granddaughters. She helped my daughter, who was 10 at the time, start a small baby blanket as well.
During the summer and fall of 2010 I took her for wheelchair rides as often as possible around the town of Steinbach where she lived. On a few of those rides we went to the fabric store and one of them we picked up the batting and the flannel backing for the quilt. We were able to find the perfect match 40+ years after my Grandma had picked out the fabric for the top of the quilt. We must have been quite a sight going down the sidewalk that day. We folded up the backing and put it in the container with the rest of the quilt waiting for the perfect day to do the quilting. Mom decided that we should have a quilting party in the first few days of October. Her sister would be there along with my sister and her two daughters. On that Saturday morning I was getting ready to leave for my Mom’s and the phone rang. It was Mom and she sounded upset. She hesitated and finally said, “I hate to tell you this but I don’t think we can quilt today. I have to go back into the hospital. I have been trying to phone you for the last hour but I just didn’t want to disappoint you. I was really looking forward to this and I know you were too.” I was disappointed but the worst part was that I knew we were missing our last chance. I knew it was over.
She only stayed in the hospital 4 or 5 days that time but when she came home she had lost more mobility. About a week after she was home she said, “I think you can put the quilt away. You will have to finish it another time without me.” My heart broke because I knew that “putting away the quilt” was a symbol of so much more. She was acknowledging her fate. The quilt was put in the closet with reassurances that we would get it out for her if she wanted it. Soon after that we moved her hospital bed into the living room and began the 6 week vigil that came to a close on December 17th, 2010.
I took the quilt home and didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t have a quilt frame or the space to set it up. I really didn’t know where to begin. A few years ago I found out that a friend of ours knew how to quilt. I hesitated asking for her help because it all just seemed too daunting and too much of an imposition. I finally asked Elle in the spring of 2013 if she would help me over the summer. She was kind enough to ask her Mom for a frame and offered her basement for a few months to do the most crucial parts on the big frame. We spent an entire Saturday in July of 2013 setting it up in her basement. Elle gave me a few lessons and pointers and helped me get started. I drove the hour to her place nearly every weekend last summer and early fall to get the long lines done to hold it all together. If Elle was home she helped me out as much as she could and on the final weekend spent hours with me getting it ready for me to take home. Those days in her basement were very special. My daughter came with me a few times and helped out. We had lots of time for visiting. There were also times where I was quilting alone and had time to reflect on good and bad times. It was therapeutic. I connected with my Mom and Grandma through the stitches and the fabric. I was carrying on the tradition and completing a 3 generation quilt.
I have been working on the 48 blocks for the last year on a lap frame. When I finish these last 2 blocks my friend, Elle, will finish the sides just in time for us to use this winter. I am not a natural quilter. I am not a seamstress. I have done this as a labor of love and tradition. I have struggled through it at times and just waited to be done. But now that I am so close I know I am going to miss it. I don’t want this chapter to end. But today is the day. This evening I will put the original pattern, block and pieces into a large poster frame to be displayed and preserved.
I have been asked many times if I will do another one. This is my first and last quilt. My Grandma and Mom did all the work. I’m just finishing what they started doing the simplest part. I wouldn’t have a clue how to start another one. I don’t have the tools, nor the inclination to learn. For me this quilt is the finishing of something, not the start of a new hobby. As my husband will tell you, I have enough hobbies without starting any new ones. I am so grateful to Elle for providing me with the space, frame and lessons to get it going and my husband for understanding and respecting why I was and am doing this, even when I had to spend so much time away last summer. I am also grateful for the women who came before me. We take so much for granted that wouldn’t be possible without them.