Thursday, September 26, 2013


My dad was wrapped up in a quilt when I arrived at his house the other day.  This treasure was given to him  after he had a stroke by a friend and member of our church.  This is our friend's ministry--making beautiful quilts for those members who are sick or shut-in.

Recently my father told me how he helped his mother hand-quilt  her special quilts .  They would lay the quilt out on the floor with her on one side and him on the other and begin to stitch and talk and laugh.

When I was a little girl, I would spend the night with my grandma.  I would fall asleep tucked under one of those same coverings of love, stitched by my grandmother and my father-- white, with bits of delicate color-- the artistry, creativity, and love taken for granted by my four-year-old self.

What I would give  to have one of those precious quilts now.

They were all taken the day of my grandmother's funeral. (That is another story for another time)

Quilts contain our memories and our family histories. Quilts are remembrances and teach us community, cooperation, and the value of re-purposing scraps of  our lives.

Quilts are maps to freedom.

In The Quilt by Ann Jonas, a little girl is given a brand new quilt made by her mother and father to go on her new grown-up bed. Her quilt is made of pieces of her younger life -- a swatch of her old curtains  crib sheets, baby pajamas.  What a wonderful gift and container for her memories.

Tanya's grandmother is making a  patchwork quilt and Tanya is fascinated with the process.  As The Patchwork Quilt unfolds, she spends all her time watching how grandmother is stitching the pieces of old clothes and other leftover fabrics... until grandmother falls ill. Tanya make it her mission to complete the quilt with the help of her mother.  In the end, grandmother gets well enough to again work on the quilt and stitch the final square which dedicates the quilt to Tanya.

Quilts can hold our personal histories and keep our memories safe and warm.

Patricia Polacco tells her family's story of immigrating from Russia in The Keeping Quilt. Anna's mother explains that making the quilt from scraps of their clothing from their homeland will keep their country and family near.

Women in this family used the quilt  through four generations on important occasions-- as a Sabbath tablecloth, a wedding canopy, and a blanket  for their new babies--teaching the importance of remembering  history,  valuing tradition,and practicing inter-generational love.

The illustrations in black and white, except for the quilt and the pieces of clothing that will become part of the quilt, show clearly how the quilt is constructed of  pieces of the family's life.

Quilts can hold our family histories and preserve our collective stories.

In the lives of African American slaves, quilts played an additional and critical role.  Quilts were the maps to freedom--showing the paths to take north, the stars to watch-- and also became signals showing  it was safe to knock at  particular houses or stations on the underground railroad.

When Soonie's  great-grandmother was sold, her mother gave her a piece of muslin, two needles, and bright red thread. She was raised by Big Mama, who passed on stories of the underground railroad, and taught her to make a show way by sewing messages and directions into a quilt.   In Show Way the stories, traditions and quilt are passed down through eight generations of women--  until we meet the author and descendant of Soonie,  Jaqueline Woodson

 Clara is a slave and a seamstress.  After she overhears drovers talk about escaping to the North and to freedom, she is able to create a patchwork quilt mapping her surrounding area --and the way to freedom. When she escapes to Canada, this quilt is left behind to guide others.   Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson illustrates the importance of quilts in the underground railroad.

My newest and most intriguing quilt book, I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery by Cynthia Grady, arrived in the mail several days after my father told me his quilt story.  It seemed that quilting and stitching together stories was in the air. Structuring her work like a patchwork quilt, Grady masterfully weaves poetry and quilt patterns together with the  with the variety of experiences of slavery in America. The magnificent illustrations by Michele Wood further create this quilt metaphor.

Quiltmaking and poetry share similarities in craft.  In on, color and shape are organized into an overall pattern; int eh other, sound and structure create the pattern.  Each poem in this collection is named for a traditional quilt block and reflects a metaphorical patchwork of circumstances encountered by enslaved people in America
In  Basket, she captures the importance of fabric magic and motherland  memories.

...I lay my stitches down and trouble fall
away.  Before too long. I am breathing with
the rhythm of my quilting--listening
wide with every fiber of my soul:
the praise songs of my people; voices of
 my kin ; drumbeats of my mother land form
 the threads that wave the fabric of my life.

Several other excellent books provide information about the construction of quilts, the symbolism of particular patterns and blocks, the way the quilts were used as signals on the underground railroad and more for those who wish to delve further.

Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard and Facts & Fabrications: Unraveling the History of Quilts & Slavery: 8 Projects, 20 Blocks, First-person Accounts by Barbara Brackman both offer a wealth of  wisdom and ways with quilts.

How many were kept warm  led to freedom by the same covering?

And finally, no piece on quilts would be complete without mentioning the wonderful  pairings of stunning hand-made quilts and thought- provoking poetry by Anna Grossnickle Hines.   Her work delights all of the senses. My favorite is Peaceful Pieces: Poems and Quilts About Peace.    Additional selections include Pieces: A Year in Poems & QuiltsandWinter Lights: A Season in Poems & Quilts.

What poetic expression does your quilt hold?
What poetry will your quilt whisper to you ?

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Do you or your family  have quilts or other handmade coverings?
How did they come to be made? by whom? and why?

What does this quilt mean to you?

If you don't know the story of your quilt, ask someone who may remember.

Write a narrative telling the story  or history of your quilt.
Write a poem inspired by this story or the quilt itself.

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