The tradition of quilting ties generations together
All the years I was growing up in our house in Midland, I did not know that our attic contained treasure—until we cleared out the house after my dad could no longer live there alone. I stood below the attic opening, getting showered with bits of lint and dust, as my brothers hoisted down a wooden trunk with a curved lid that, from the look of it, had once survived travel by wagon—it was that old. Inside were two quilts and a letter to my older brother and me from our grandmother, Ida, dated 1964. “My grandmother pieced these two quilts,” she wrote. “They are about 150 or 160 years old.”
I’d been hoping to find my long-lost Barbie RV in the attic; instead, I found my heritage, pieced in squares made from the shirts and dresses my ancestors likely wore.
Quilt making is a cultural heritage that links the old to the new, and that is certainly true in Georgetown. Women still gather around wood frames to hand stitch elaborate quilts, while young people in 4-H learn quilting techniques both traditional and modern. Whatever their age or skill level, today’s quilters continue the legacy of an art form—and social activity—that has endured for generations.
On Thursday afternoons at Handcrafts Unlimited on the Georgetown Square, ladies settle into chairs around a quilt frame, laughing together and discussing their craft, just as women have for generations. Quilts, writes Marcia Kaylakie in Texas Quilts and Quilters: A Lone Star Legacy, provided rural Texas women with “reasons to gather and socialize; they were the utility items on a family’s bed; and they were sentimental items that could be a reminder or a gift.”
Quilter Dorothy Schmidt, 88, remembers feeling that camaraderie as she played under a quilt frame lowered from the living room ceiling while her aunts and grandmother worked and talked around it. As a child, her first quilting efforts were doll coverlets and little pillowcases. After years teaching elementary school art, Dorothy, a lifelong seamstress, resumed quilting after retiring to Georgetown in 1981. Her well-organized workshop, once a bedroom, is stocked with various sewing tools, fabric bins, an extra-wide ironing surface, and a wall of award ribbons, mostly for first or second place or top ten.
Dorothy can’t count the number of quilts she’s made, many of which have become gifts for newlyweds or for her family members.
Around 1981, St. John’s United Methodist Church’s pastor, Reverend Bill Smith, suggested that the church start a quilting circle. Thelma Munson, one of the group’s original members, remembers Reverend Smith quilting right along with the ladies. The group still gathers to work on quilts for the church’s Harvest Fest auction each year, where the hand-made quilts garner bids as high as $2,000; one recently commanded $4,600. The ladies figure that the group has produced seventy or more quilts since it began.
Aside from their kaleidoscopic beauty, quilts once had to function as utility items, too. They were essential for keeping whole families warm during cold weather months, as Myrtice Macomber, another original member of St. John’s quilting group, remembers. She and her six sisters helped make quilts in the wintertime.
As railroads brought new fabrics and sewing notions to rural Texas outposts in the 19th century, women combined carefully saved scraps with store-bought material to produce practical, yet beautiful quilts for their families. Women once made their own quilt patterns, but in the early 20th century, as women’s magazines began to publish standard patterns, quilters often exchanged and modified them. Today, quilters find the latest fabrics, patterns, and specialty threads at shops like Poppy Quilt ‘N Sew in Georgetown.
“I grew up helping my grandmother with hand quilting,” says Michele Chambers, 50. On holidays, the women gathered in her grandmother’s living room to do hand work on squares. In turn, Michele is not only teaching her daughter, Hannah, 16, to sew but is also passing on the skill as a project leader for the 4-H Clothing and Textiles Project.
Through 4-H, girls (and a boy or two) learn the basics of quilting step by step—designing, cutting, piecing, and sewing—with the help of Michele and other quilters. In 4-H, Michele explains, “the mission is for the kids to have community service and leadership opportunities.” As quilters like Hanna develop their skills, they teach the younger girls in turn. The quilts produced by the 4-H groups are auctioned off at the 4-H banquet to raise scholarship money for 4-H students heading to college.
“I learned everything that I know about sewing from my grandma,” Ashleigh Snyder, 17, says. “When I was eight, I made my first quilt.” She laughs about how “messy” it turned out, but today the Granger High School senior still works on quilts during visits with her grandmother and has taken part in two 4-H quilt projects. “It’s cool,” Ashleigh remarks, that she’s learned the skills that made pioneer women self-sufficient. “I can say [that] I’m wearing or I’m using something that I made,” she explains, “when a lot of my friends don’t sew.”
The 2015 Georgetown Quilt and Stitchery Show takes place March 27-28. For more information go to www.visit.georgetown.org.