Friday, October 14, 2011

Grandma’s Blues, Part II: “ ‘Anonymous’ was a Woman”

A nagging question for quilters and historians, especially women historians, is: Why are there so few signatures on our grandmothers’ quilts—or any other kind of hand work for that matter? Why is it so difficult to trace the women who preceded us? This makes "Grandma's Blues" not just a color, but a melancholy-worthy thought. 
         One of my favorite inherited quilts (albeit, green and not blue) contains my grandmother’s signature, of sorts, and the year it was made. This makes it the only one of her quilts that is signed and dated, to the best of my knowledge.
Was it signed and dated because the occasion was important? I think so, for this block is in the center and she made it for her first child and only son, my dad, born in 1920. His name and birthdate appear in a center block as well. 
         My grandmother loved to read and some of my dad’s fondest childhood memories were of his mother reading to him. This quilt testifies to that past, as it contains images from the Peter Pan story, a book she probably read to him when he was six or seven years old. Better yet, it contains an image of Mother Reading a Story, which does not appear to be connected to the Peter Pan story.
The quilt came to me in poor shape. My mom (a devoted knitter) had understood that this quilt was to be used along with several others. She didn’t quite see its uniqueness.
By undoing several stitches of the lighter green border fabric, I discovered that it was added by my grandmother (possibly in the 1940s or early 1950s) to cover the worn out edges. This suggests that this particular quilt had some sentimental value for her, as she took the time to repair it and then gave it to my folks.
My mom had machine zigzagged the holes that had developed across the top (for quilters, this is like nails on a chalkboard—so sorry). However, thanks to the zigzags, the quilt managed to hold together until it landed in my hands. I picked out the zigzag stitches in the mending process.
Using closely matched fabrics from my stash, I have inserted the newer fabrics into the worn blocks (occasionally taking out the quilting) and sewn down the shreds of fabric to the newer fabric in the worst spots. Consequently, the quilt appears whole again from a distance, but upon closer inspection, the repairs can be seen. As some of the quilting had already disappeared through wear, I will eventually re-quilt it.
The images come from a distant era, the 1920s or earlier. Much of the embroidery had worn away, however the pencil marks remained so I was able to bring the images back to life. Besides Wendy (shown at the beginning), there are pirates, 
the Lost Boys, 
an Indian,
and Nana, the nanny/dog. And Peter?
It seems that this is Peter, an elfish child playing the flute and with a feather in his hat. Other images lend a magical note. There is a mermaid,
an impish elf teasing a cat,
and, of course, Tinkerbell.
While writing this post, I went to my mom's 1930 book: 
Two thoughts: first of all, if memories of Walt Disney's movie color your vision of Peter Pan, then read the original version by J.M. Barrie. It's sophisticated and funny and written with a great deal of depth--obviously written for adults as well as children. In fact, I can't imagine kids understanding the half of it.  Second thought: In a later edition, Wendy lost out when the title became simply Peter Pan. And that's a pity for she is associated with a mothering role, however, Peter Pan will replace her again and again--as if mothers are interchangeable.
        So I would like to hear from you...what about your grandmothers and great-grandmothers? Do you possess any traces of them? What would you have liked to possess? Why didn't they sign and why have they been erased? Are there exceptions to that in your family?

And thinking of my children and grandchildren, I will sew a tag to the back that tells the history of this quilt that includes three generations: I count my mom as her zigzag stitches will remain forever visible.
Update: Created by Ruby Short McKim, this quilt pattern appeared in 1926 in the Kansas City Star newspaper. See: and click on "Peter Pan". Thanks to Michelle of Michelle's Romantic Tangle for drawing this to my attention. 


Anonymous said...

What a beautiful legacy your grandmother left, not only the quilt but a granddaughter that appreciates her work enough to take the care to preserve such a beatiful piece!

I have my great-grandmother's engagement ring and wedding band, but would love to have something she made with her own hands.

thank you for sharing this with us!

Nifty Quilts said...

What a labor of love, for all generations! It seems to be a very unique quilt--a humble gift from mother to son, with no thoughts of notoriety. I wonder if the lack of signing quilts was because they were made to be used, rather than as art pieces. Humility was the order of the day. They may not have had the luxury of thinking that textiles could be saved for future generations. They were meant to be used, and used up.

I have two quilts made by my great-grandmother. The workmanship is very fine, but my mother had no respect for them. I suppose if she had, then I would not have the wonderful tactile memories of sleeping and playing with them all during my childhood. I regret the shape they are in now. But I am thankful they weren't stored away in a chest, "too good to use."

Carole Reid said...

I made myself a cup of tea and read this slowly enjoying each photo and thinking about grandmothers.

My Nana was very wild and free for her times. She didn't sew or knit or quilt. Instead she dressed up for the roles assigned in movies my dad and his siblings shot on their old movie camera.

We chased her around the house in her fur coat pretending we were bears. She'd collect bits and bops together for us to make cards and books.

My Nana was one of the most creative and inspiring people I've ever known. Without her I wouldn't be painting today.

Katie said...

What a beautiful piece of family history and wonderful that you are restoring it. I wonder if women didn't feel a need to sign their quilts and other handiwork as it was not so much considered "art" but a useful addition to the bedroom. While I stand in awe of quilts and the work that went into them, maybe they didn't think themsleves "artists"?
My mom and I made a king size quilt for my brother and wife and you bet we signed it- mom machine embroidered it. Not so many quilts in our family history tho. But dang if I don't know the ABZ and TZR signatures in my Grandma and Mom's cross stitch! :)
Thank you for sharing such a special quilt. Take care!

Ms. said...

* The names of the women whose domestic production, craft skills and careful love went unsigned, the anonymous millions and millions is indeed "a melancholy-worthy thought".
* Your careful love in noticing all the details of their creation, and reconstructing with repairs and additions in order to pass it along to another generation, is also wonderfully worthy.
* My own mother, grandmothers and great-grandmothers, though not entirely anonymous to me, are such distant memories, that even thinking about them fogs my brain a bit. I still hear my mothers voice when I sing, have many photographs, and, of course, memories. I own a dress she used to wear but I seldom do, a few pieces of trashy jewelry, and a trinket or two. There are photographs but little else of my grandmothers--although, for a few decades I owned a cherry wood bench that needed repair, but has since been discarded sorry to say--nd nothing of the great grands but some research I once attempted.
* Any traces of them are now encoded in my genetic structure, inclinations of attraction, and neural pathways in my brain. I would dearly have loved to be in possession of Nana Slater's Cabin in the Catskill mountains where I spent childhood retreats under great pines, took baths in a big tin tub out on the lawn, and savored real oatmeal mornings after down comforted sleep. No quilts survived, so I don't know if they were signed. The cabin was sold to pay for her last care in a nursing home. All my oldest relatives are gone to ground--the Nanas would have said "gone to God"--I, and a brother I seldom see, are the visible result of all that mothering and grand-mothering. That is what I retain until my time runs out--my self.

anne said...

J'adore ton blog plein de quilts et de belles histoires; tu es une conteuse!!!Et je viens régulièreemnt chez toi!! Merci pour ton com!!smack!!!

Diane said...

Thanks for visiting my blog. Your words were ever so kind.

I love your story! I do have a quilt from my mom's mom though I do not remember her ever tounching a needle n my view. though i do not have fond memories of her,I do cherish the thoughts of her cutting and sewing the pieces of old clothes together. Some may been been that of my very beloved grandpa.

Carol said...

How wonderful to have this piece of family history and memorabilia. The embroidered figures are beautiful. Will mark you and come back later.

My Creative House said...

Nadia thanks for visit and sweet comment, fantastic quilt I love quilts with a history, so wonderful that you are restoring it.

blandina said...

I was moved by this amazing work of restoration that you have undertaken. The quilt is beautiful and I can feel the passion and dedication that your grandmother put into the embroideries.
My grandmothers did a bit of everything, as women did at the time, but nothing is left of their very utilitarian works. But one of them taught me to knit and sew...and this is a good legacy.

bj said...

You have prompted me to repair a quilt made by my grandmother in the early 1920's. It will take thought, preparation and time --- with loving memories. Thank you for showing this quilt before and after.

Vivian said...

I came over to your blog from your visit to Cardygirl. This restoration work is amazing and from the heart. How fortunate that the pencil markings were still visible so you could re-stitch the adorable little pictures.
I'm the "label police" with my friends. I stress the sadness of knowing little or nothing about quilts from the past with no labels, and they're getting better about documenting their work.

One grandmother died before I was born and the other lived far enough away that I have few memories of her. I was just one of her 25 or 30 grandchildren, so we had no special time together. No quilters in my family, so no quilts of any sort to love and enjoy. I guess I'm starting a new generation of quilters. Both of my daughters quilt now and then.

Magpie Sue said...

What a treasure you have in that quilt! Even better that you recognize it and have gone to such great lengths to preserve it. I love that it pre-dates the Disneyfying of the story (and imagery).

I am fortunate enough to have an Irish Chain quilt pieced and quilted by one of my great-great-grandmothers. And a couple of tops made by my great grandmother. They aren't signed but my mother was astute enough to keep track of who made what. On that side of the family, at least, tokens of previous generations have been saved and passed down. Can't say the same for my father's side. He still has a hard time assigning value to the things women produce. And that's enough said about that!

Quilt Inspiration said...

Nadia, thank you for your wonderful article about your grandmother's legacy. We found it to be very moving and very enjoyable. What a fabulous piece of your family history and a true inspiration.

Best wishes, from Marina and Daryl

Eva said...

What a thrilling story! This quilt indeed deserves the preservation that you gave it. As it is true for architecture, it's the every day things that don't seem so pompous but say so much about life in former decades or one's own family! And these are the things that get lost most easily.

Starwood Quilter said...

I absolutely love your blog! What my paternal grandmother left to her children and grandchildren were her diaries. She kept diaries nearly all of her life. The oldest one I have is from 1914,and the newest one is from 1979. I am working on a blog project you might be interested in. I am making appropriately-named quilt blocks and matching them up with her 1916 diary entries, the year she turned 21. She wrote every day that year - the diary is over 400 pages long.

Linda in Arkansas said...

Thanks for commenting on my blog - as it has led me back to your very interesting blog! When I was very young there was a double wedding ring quilt in cupboard. It was used for picnics and for sitting on at the beach. I really couldn't understand my mother's attitude towards such a pretty quilt. She didn't like it and she always referred to it as "that old thing". (This was the only quilt in our house.) I just recently learned that my father's mother made the quilt. Oh now the light bulb has gone off! My mother really couldn't stand her. So that's why my mother didn't like that quilt! It is this quilt that started me on my quilting journey - my grandmother that I was never allowed to visit and love has in the end given me a great gift.

shirley said...

This is a beautiful story, thank you for sharing. Thanks your your love and care this quilt will live on for more generations.

I grew up in a big family, and my most treasured times were those I spent staying with my "nana" and grandfather who were so kind to me. I learned to make home made ice cream, iron stiffened shirt colours and hankies, and play cards. There was always a drink of cocoa and a biscuit before bed. Oh and dressing up with nana's crystal beads round my neck. I received no material things but I had memories none of the other grandchildren had.

Sue said...

I have a quilt top from both of my grandmas that were stashed away, apparently the only quilts they worked on. My husband's Grandma Glenn was really the quilter, she did amazing hand quilting and I treasure the quilts I have from her. Strangely, Grandma Glenn didn't sign or date her quilts, but did embroider her children's names on quilts that were specifically for a certain child.

Kim said...

I have a half-finished embroidered doily that I think belonged to my grandmother (but am not sure; it was tucked into the family Bible).

My mom was not a crafter, except for a brief foray into painting on cloth in the late 60s when her circle of friends kept holding house parties to sell the kits that included the paints, hoops and table linens on which to paint. But I don't think anything remains of what she created.

My stepdad's mom sent a baby quilt when our first child was born. She was so apologetic because it was a whole piece quilt, one of those panels with a picture printed on it. She couldn't see well enough at the time to piece a quilt, but she had hand quilted the panel. Our son loved that quilt -- a little too much, since it ended up rather ragged. I saved it, not sure of what to do with it. I'm feeling more comfortable now, after reading numerous blogs about how different women have salvaged old quilts, to do something (anything!) to make it useful again. Hopefully by the time he and his wife have one of their own?

I didn't "sign" any of my first quilts, created back in the 80s, because I didn't even think about it. At the time I didn't consider them art, or something that would even last a lifetime. I saw them as utilitarian objects that made nice gifts :) I did take photos of most of my projects however, so there is that.

Michelle said...

Is this the pattern for the Peter Pan quilt?

I stumbled across it a few weeks ago and have been playing with the idea of making one for myself.