The other weekend, my neighbor (The Cookie Queen, aka Mistress of the Needle Arts) accompanied me to a unique play entitled “The Quilters.” It was, oddly enough, a musical – with dancing! This production, fittingly performed at the Missouri History Museum, is based on the book The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art: An Oral History, by Patricia Cooper and Norma Bradley Allen. It is a series of vignettes as an elderly pioneer woman creates her final quilt – a legacy quilt – to remind her daughters of her life and theirs. Not only does the quilt recreate her lifetime, but some of the scraps that go into it are actual pieces of her life: her wedding dress, a baby’s blanket, a daughter’s dress. In my quilting ignorance I had thought the quilt would be made up of pictorial depictions, a la a landscape or appliqué art quilt, but as appropriate for that time and place in history it was a piecework quilt filled with traditional patterns. There were blocks such as the Rocky Road westward trail, the Dugout home and then the Log Cabin, the Windmill that pulled water from the well, Four Doves in the Window that reminded the mother of herself and her daughters quilting together, Crosses and Losses after a terrible wildfire, and the Tree of Life which formed the center of the quilt. The play made me want to create memory quilts for my own daughters, preferably with hand stitching involved.
Along with this quilting play was an exhibit of quilts (through Sept 13) created by Mary Lee Bendolph, one of the Gee’s Bend quilters, made famous by a traveling exhibit of these African-American ladies’ work. From a small community in Alabama, tucked in an isolated curve of a river, the women created intensely colorful works of warmth and art that seem based on abstract paintings. They used strips (rectangles) and strings (wedge shapes) to put together primitive yet very architectural designs using whatever scraps they could find in their poverty-stricken lives. They didn’t worry about fancy stitching or the usual patterns because these were just quilts “for hard use.” After Mary Lee Bendolph became famous she said, “I can have any materials I want now, but I still love to use leftover and recycled clothes…I see the value of the leftover cloth. Old clothes have the spirit, and I can’t leave the spirit out.”
Someday when I retire(!) I want to quilt for my girls. I’ve already made each of them quilted Christmas stockings, but I want something bigger – at least a lap quilt – and more memorable. I’d better start planning and saving important scraps. I want there to be a spirit in each of those treasures.
*The Missouri History Museum in St. Louis is looking for stories of quilts. If you are in the area and can bring your quilt or a photo to a videotaped session, call 314-361-7369 or email jsowell at mohistory.org to set up a 45 minute appointment on May 9, 16 or 30.
**Want to try quilting? Check out The Quilter’s Ultimate Visual Guide: A-Z; experienced quilters might like Suzanne Marshall’s new book Adventures & Applique: Traveling the World of her inspiring award-winning quilts based on her travel memories.