The New Era - All about Sweet Home since 1929

Museum's quilt collection tells stories from history

 

December 30, 2015



On a chilled night, when rain mutters across the roof and grumbles down the gutters and a fog-bound wind plucks at the windows and doors, comes a realization: The best place to be is in bed, curled snug and warm beneath one of Grandma’s quilts.

At such a time Grandma can be easily envisioned, a woman past middle-age with greying hair and a pleasant face, who wears a paisley print apron over her plaid gingham dress and who resembles Auntie Em from “The Wizard of Oz.”

Sitting with her lap full of fabric scraps, she lays aside pieces from Uncle Jack’s shirt, or from Aunt Elsa’s blouse or even from something made for you, along with a piece or two matching her homemade dress and apron.

Soon she will be cutting and stitching together that quilt, its pattern called perhaps, “Borrowing from Peter to Pay Paul,” the one made by loving hands and filled with memories.

Maybe.

Now a quilt looking very much as if it came from a book on Americana can be purchased from a big-box store and Grandma is likely to have been a young Chinese woman stitching together a “Double Wedding Ring” quilt according to a computer program.

Still, “Made in China” pays a certain amount of homage to American quilt making. At least most of the quilts you can see at the East Linn museum were not only made in America, some loving hands included, but were put together right here in the Sweet Home area.

Entering the Household Room at the museum, one sees three quilts displayed on the east wall that immediately catch the eye.

The first, a “Variable Star” pattern, is the oldest. Said to have been made by Sarah Bowser who died in 1895, it is a striking example of a pieced quilt.

The second quilt on the wall deserves special mention, as it combines the different quilting techniques of piecing and appliqué, plus some decorative embroidery, fancy stitching and even the use of fabric paint.

It represents the history of the Sweet Home area with picture blocks showing, for example, J.P. Harang’s store in Foster, the Geisendorfer Hotel in Cascadia, a horse-drawn mail buggy, a covered bridge, and even a modern logging truck.

It celebrates not only the founding of the East Linn Museum, but also the 50th anniversary of the quilting club, the Jolly Stitchers, to which much of the Museum’s knowledge of quilting is owed since the club’s members have supplied several quilts, including another friendship quilt, the one covering the bed nearby.

The third is a friendship quilt. Each block bears the name of a friendly maker as well as an appliqued flying bird. Nearly half the museum’s quilts are friendship quilts, maybe explaining why they were saved. A gift of friendship is always worth keeping.

A note might be made here. A quilt does not have to be quilted to be a quilt, and as far as word meanings go, any quilt can be a coverlet or a comforter. Quilting, of course, brings to mind stitching together three fabric layers, the middle one being, perhaps, matted fibers like a batting composed of cotton or polyester.

Actually, the sandwiched layers in the past have sometimes been a reused old quilt or blanket.

The key work happens to be stitching, but tying together these layers with intermittent knots of yarn or embroidery thread can also be used. This is shown by the bright red yarn ties on the 1976 “Nine Patch” comforter made by first and second grade students at the Foster

Elementary School, who embroidered their names in the centers of each block.

Another nine-patch quilt, one made by Sandridge students in 1902, is also close by, providing a comparison between 1902 and 1976 fabrics, their contrasting colors and patterns. What a difference!

An old song runs, “It was from Aunt Dinah’s quilting party, I was taking Nelly home...” which brings up an American custom of having quilting parties, also called “bees” and “frolics.”

Maybe he who was taking Nelly home had frolicking in mind, but Grandma, after piecing her quilt, may likely have attended a quilting party to have it finished off. If she were lucky, she may have belonged to a quilting group similar to the Holley Sewing Club or the previously mentioned Jolly Stitchers.

Alma Burkholder of Holley did. She pieced, among others, “Monkey Wrench,” “Bow Tie” and “Postage Stamp” patterned quilts, all at the museum, all quilted by the Holley Sewing Club.

“Postage Stamp,” as its name implies, means sewing together inch square blocks – surely a tour de force, though the museum has two such quilts and one of them is a nine-patch, with nine little pieces to each block.

At any rate, the museum has more information on the Jolly Stitchers who still stitch today at the Sweet Home Senior Center. In 1981 Corean Morgan interviewed the Jolly Stitchers in conjunction with the creation of the East Linn Museum, or ELMS, quilt. Grace Nothiger served as the main spokesperson for the Jolly Stitchers.

The Jolly Stitchers started out as a group around 1931 or 1932 in Foster. They met once a week, ate potluck, and paid a penny apiece as dues. This was during the Great Depression, after all. Grace Nothiger’s mother, Mrs. C.W. Rowe, helped found the group, and eventually her daughter succeeded her.

Under Grace Nothiger, the dues went up to a dollar a meeting and members brought their own lunches.

Though the ladies, and maybe a male member or two, worked primarily on their own quilts, they did quilt for others for a fee. At first they charged $1.25 for each hundred yards of quilting thread used, but trying to estimate how much thread might be needed for varied patterns proved challenging and they began estimating according to the size of the quilt instead.

Under the old system, they might charge from $8 to $15 to quilt a project, a bargain for certain. Using the second system, when a woman brought in a quilt she didn’t want to work on, the Jolly Stitchers upped the price to $75. She took it!

In the old days, as now, when the Jolly Stitchers took fees for their work, the money went, as it still does, to charities.

Although quilting started out aimed at making a practical use of otherwise discarded fabric, it has long since risen to the ranks of folk art. Like hand-carved pitchforks polished by use and now hung as wall decor, a beautifully done quilt can be admired more for its artistic and aesthetic merit than for its warmth. In times past, however, such a quilt advertised the merits of its maker, perhaps as a future housewife.

Girls started developing their sewing skills at a young age, as the appliqued Dresden Plate blocks made by Lucille Rapp’s mother when she was around 12, show. These blocks, calico stitched on the saved fabric from salt sacks, sit on a display case just inside the door to the same room in which the other quilts are shown.

They represent a time coming to a close, the early 20th century, when girls filled a “hope chest” with quilts and linens mostly of their own making, in preparation for future marriage. A “hopeless chest, a brother might call it.

Today a young girl would likely exclaim, “A what?”

In the same cabinet there is a sampler quilt each block of a different pattern, containing blocks given to Lois Rice, one of the museum’s founders, by Auntie Brooks of Crawfordsville when Lois was 7 or 8. A “sailboat” friendship quilt and one pieced from heavy upholstery fabric samples appear in the cabinet, as well.

Missing from the museum’s collection of quilts are ones with pattern names such as “Flying Geese,” “Kansas Troubles,” “Crosses and Losses,” “The Bachelor,” “Whigs’ Defeat” and those starting out with “The Road...” which could be about the road to anywhere – California, Texas, Oregon...

Since this pattern is also called “Drunkard’s Path” a crooked path is depicted. Many quilt pattern names reflect the use of quilt making at the same time Americans were rolling across the continent, settling the land from sea to sea.

On the other hand, you can’t really tell what patterns lie hidden in the folded sampler quilt in the display case, and a couple of other quilts have not been identified by name.

At any rate, thanks to the members of the Jolly Stitchers and the Holley Sewing Club, among others of course, 16 quilts can be viewed at the museum, especially on a cold day when they may serve as reminders of hibernating beneath one of Grandma’s quilts until the last frost date in April.

 
 

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