Thursday, September 1, 2016
Same Old Blog, Brand New Story
The Chester Criswell Quilt is a hard act to follow - my g-g-grandmother Mary McClellan Criswell’s 164 year old bridal quilt made and signed by her family and friends. When I began to research my ancestral quilt in 2012 I believed it would be a unique experience - which it certainly was and still is. This quilt was the only antique quilt I possessed then but I kept an eye out for something similar to add to my collection of one.
I soon discovered that quilts from the mid 19th century were beyond my budget. But I did find one from the 1930s that appealed. It had most of the features I was looking for. There were a variety of different block designs, so it could be called a sampler or an album quilt. Each block had a name embroidered on it, so it was a friendship or a signature quilt – so good potential for a story to be found. The names included surnames making the owners easier to find. One block was the deciding factor – it included a name, a date and a location. I didn’t know where Malaga, Washington was but I thought I could find out.
I was delighted when it arrived and I unpacked it. It was in good condition with a few worn spots. The binding had been replaced at some time but the whole quilt was clean. I hung it out in the Australian fresh air and sunshine and then gave it a safe place in my sewing room.
I wasn’t planning to do any detailed research on the women who had made the quilt. I was quite happy with the range of blocks in typical 1930s fabric; I was just going to reproduce the quilt for my own satisfaction. I was still pattern-making and writing stories about my ancestors for the Chester Criswell quilt and had no intention of exploring these unknown ladies …..
…. but then, why not? I thought I would just take a little peek at Ancestry.com to get an idea of the ages of the quiltmakers and to see if it was a family effort or a group of friends.
The first woman I looked up followed her missionary husband to the wilds of the American north-west and her baby was the first white child to be born in the area. The next woman was a schoolteacher in a one room schoolhouse; another had a son who became a senator. Some women had no children but cared for nieces and nephews; others came from families of a dozen or more. I continued to access the census records, newspapers and obituaries until - most unusually for a signature quilt - I was able to document every woman named.
At the same time as identifying the quilt makers I sought information about life in 1937. What I was looking for was women’s stories - what goods were in the shops, was paid employment available, which birth control methods were accessible, and who were the favourite movie stars. My 1930s collection grew.
I made my own quilt too. Finding 1930s reproduction prints was harder than I thought so I had to make some compromises. I auditioned suitable fabrics and copied each block. It was an on again and off again project but it moved up the queue once the Chester Criswell quilt was finished. The blocks were machine pieced and hand appliqued and the final top was hand quilted with a Baptist Fan pattern.
The final six inches of binding needs to be sewn so that’s as good a time as any to begin this new story. I’ll finish this long blog post now but stay in touch for the first installment - who was Lena Wallace, and how was her quilt made.