Quilting Lesson

by Lloyd Den Boer

Like most women of her background, place, and time, my grandmother favoured sombre clothes. True, she might wear white polka dots on dark navy to a relaxed event like a picnic, but such occasions were exceptions. Customarily, Grandma’s dresses were black. When it came to patchwork quilts, however, her taste ran in the opposite direction. Grandma’s quilts were stunning riots of colour.

Grandma’s raw resources were seldom impressive. She collected cotton scraps from anyone willing to give clothing away. Worn out, outgrown, or out of fashion as they were, the clothes looked tired and dull at the start. Yet, with three winters of work, Grandma would make their colours sing. First, she snipped small hexagon patches from her scraps, storing the patches in a box, colour by colour, much as an artist would arrange a palette. Next, she pieced the patches together following a patchwork pattern called “Grandmother’s Flower Garden.” Choosing a vibrantly coloured hexagon for a centre of one flower, she selected six contrasting hexagons to surround it and twelve of still another colour to surround the six. Having stitched all nineteen patches together, she laid the first flower aside to assemble and stitch another, and another, until she had enough for a quilt. Next, she sewed the entire quilt top together with a final row of white hexagons between each flower and its neighbours.

Once the top was stitched, anyone could appreciate the lively interplay of cheery flower colours, set off by the white boundaries between them. The patchwork quilt, however, was far from finished. Now Grandma basted the quilt top to its bottom fabric with a layer of batting in between. She assembled her friends for the first of many sessions around her quilting frame. As the women worked, outlining the fabric flowers with small, even stitches, they talked. In time, with the end of the third winter approaching, the women finished the quilt. As a final step, Grandma gave it away, taking as much pleasure from the giving as she had experienced in the making.

As a 1937 newspaper clipping left behind in her patch box suggested, my grandmother started her first Grandmother’s Flower Garden quilt during a decade of economic depression and drought. The pattern was suited to the time. Its tiny patches were a way to use even the small, good parts of otherwise worn-out clothing. Moreover, defying the Depression mood, the vibrant colours of a Grandmother’s Flower Garden quilt offered cheer when cheer was hard to find.

Casually considered, my grandmother’s quilting was no more than a hobby — pleasant for her, noteworthy for the effort it required — but not something of consequence in the world. My grandmother might have agreed; she was never one to take herself too seriously. Yet, I for one would not sell her short. Like many women of her generation, Grandma found a way to make beauty out of hardship. She found a way to assert joy where devastation was driving it away. That must have lifted her spirits and the spirits of anyone who received one of her quilts.

More subtly, as Grandma stitched her quilts, she was unobtrusively stitching people together. The friends who assembled regularly around her quilting frame became a small community of women who would face the challenges of the coming decades together. Where loneliness might have aggravated sorrow, Grandma set the conditions for resilience to grow.

Quilt-making exercised my grandmother’s best self — a self that was thrifty, persistent, creative, companionable, and generous. As she made her quilts, quilt-making made her into the person she became. Perhaps that is true for all of us. What we make, but especially why and how we make it, also makes us.

Lloyd Den Boer is a retired educator who lives in Edmonton. His wife, Audrey, is the custodian of his grandmother’s patchwork box and the authority who guided him through the mysteries of making one of these wonderful quilts.