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WHY SOUTHERNERS LOVE QUILTS

  • Written by  Margaret Miller Curtis
WHY SOUTHERNERS LOVE QUILTS

Last night was an extra quilt night. During the winter, I sleep under one but keep another folded at the foot of the bed for emergency weather. I didn’t need to be told the thermometer had dropped below freezing; I could feel it, and as I pulled the quilt up and under my chin, I remembered Mother. When I was a child, she was in the room with an extra quilt even before I realized I was getting cold. At first, I thought this was because she loved me especially, but then realizing I was sharing a bed with my younger sister, Marilyn, I was no longer sure that she was thinking just of me. Sibling rivalry starts early.

Quilts signify hope, because it used to be a tradition to fill a girl’s Hope Chest with quilts to be used in her future home. Quilts are also memory keepers.  As her daughters married, Mother presented each of us with a quilt made from our own old clothes. I could look at mine and see a scrap from the first skirt I had made for myself as well as scraps from dresses that were first mine, then handed down to Marilyn, and if they survived her, another sister would get them.

I loved that quilt too much. I wore it to death, partly because I foolishly took it with me on trips to the beach. Quilts are great for spreading out on the sand while soaking up enough rays to get a good tan. Unfortunately, sand grinds against fabric and weakens it, just as sandpaper does to wood. I washed the quilt afterwards, of course, but laundering also puts wear and tear on quilts.   

During the Colonial period, women rarely had time to quilt, because they were already overworked with having to spin and weave fabric before they could begin sewing clothes for family members. Mother tried to speed up the process of quilting by giving her daughters squares to sew together which would be added to a collection of squares, and eventually made into a quilt. Those quilts were not designed for display; they were simply practical and are usually referred to as utility quilts.

However, quilts also provide an opportunity for creativity.  For some affluent women who had servants, quilting became a hobby. They took pride in making quilts with fancy designs, and the most frequently used designs had names. The Log Cabin design was the most popular one both before and after the Civil War and was used by the Underground Railroad when moving slaves out of the South and into the North. If a Log Cabin quilt showing a chimney made with black cloth was hanging on a clothes line or displayed at a window, that signaled a house where it was safe to stop and spend the night.

I favor quilts more than blankets and probably for a good reason. Made like a sort of cloth sandwich, quilts have a top, which is usually decorative, a filler, and a bottom cloth, which is usually a single piece of fabric. As opposed to a heavy wool blanket, quilts are lightweight, but body heat becomes trapped in the cells created by quilting, due to the unique combination of layers and stitching.

Sometimes, quilts are just too beautiful to be hidden away in bedrooms. My younger sister, Kathy, once gave me a Crazy Quilt she found in an antique store in Buda, Texas. It has been hanging in our family room ever since. These quilts, which became popular during the age of Queen Victoria are prized because each one is uniquely original. They are comprised of irregular shapes of scraps in a wild assortment of colors and of luxurious fabrics, usually silks and velvets. Each scrap is adorned with fancy stitching and embroidered images of everything from flowers to fans. The quilt in our family room also features a couple of photos transferred to silk. One photo is of a young woman, who I like to imagine is a photo of the woman who made it.

Once, while on a tour of homes in Atlanta, I saw another crazy quilt incased in a Plexiglas case. From a distance, it looked like a piece of modern art. I assumed the case was meant to preserve the quilt, and that made me nervous, because my husband, Dan, had merely stapled my quilt to a wood frame. Plexiglass is shatter proof which explains why it wasn’t put in a glass case, but Plexiglas is like plastic in that it blurs the colors of anything it protects.  I love the impact of the bright colors of the quilt, so I decided to forgo the case and periodically use my hair dryer to gently blow off dust.    

I hope I am not being irresponsible or irreverent, because that quilt represents a lot of work done by someone in the past, but maybe just loving the quilt is good enough. To express that sentiment in a Biblical style, I would say that quilts represent care, hope, memory and love, but the greatest of these is love.

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