Thursday, March 19, 2015

What's your story?

What do quilts and stories have to do with each other? Everything, actually! 

Have you ever had a piece of needlework passed down through your family and wondered who made it, how they made it, and/or why? These are the stories of our families—part of our history. So often these gems are tucked away in a chest or put on a closet shelf. But there is a wealth of information within those stitches, if only we knew their stories.

Kara and I (Teri) have both inherited quilts that were made by our great-grandmothers. We both received the quilts from our mothers, who gave them to us knowing how much we love quilts. (Thanks, Moms!)

Marie and Ertman Steinke
Kara just recently received her quilt, which was made by Marie Steinke. Kara had never seen this quilt and didn't know it existed before her mother gave it to her this past fall. Marie was married to Ertman and had three children, two boys and a girl, the oldest of whom was Kara's grandfather. Marie died before Kara was born, and she knows little about her, except that she was born and lived most of her life in Sodus, Michigan. She and Ertman ran an orchard.

Marie and Ertman, with son, Raymond

Dresden Plate block
This quilt is a lovely Dresden plate pattern, set with a gorgeous gold fabric and bordered with a unique scallop. Sadly, no information is given with the quilt, so we know nothing of the particulars of it but that it was thought to have been made by Maria. There are no written records to tell why it was made, or how. No stories of the quilt had been shared. We are left to wonder.

Dresden Plate quilt with half-plate scalloped border.

The second quilt we will look at today was made in Pennsylvania circa 1930's by my great- grandmother, Jennie Stein, and her sister, Mabel. Jennie was born in 1883 to Charles and Susan Baum, and married Jacob Stein in 1903. They had seven children, two boys and five girls, my grandmother among them. 

Jennie and Jacob Stein's wedding certificate

My Grandmother's Flower Garden
My mother can remember the quilt frame set up in the front bedroom of my great-grandparents' home at 265 North Main Street in Red Lion, PA. She can remember the two sisters, Jennie and Mabel, sitting at the frame and quilting. She also remembers seeing them cutting up feed sacks and old aprons and dresses to make the quilts. While we are not sure that Mom actually saw this particular quilt being made, I like to picture my mother as a small girl, playing with her paper dolls on the floor beneath her grandmother and great-aunt, while they lovingly stitched bedding for their families.

Repair work around the flower center.

For this Grandmother's Flower Garden quilt was most certainly made to be utilitarian; its beauty was to be used for warmth, and it apparently was well used, as there are several places where worn patches have been heavily repaired with whip stitches. But still, care was put into the design: each "flower" has matching yellow calico centers, and it is evident that thought was put into the surrounding petals to ensure that their colors complemented each other.

Careful color choices: matching yellow flower centers,
coordinating petal fabrics.

I was blessed to have known my great-grandmother. Jennie died in 1972 when I was 14 years old. I cherish many memories of visits with Jennie and Jake when I was a young girl. Each time I look at this quilt, I am reminded of her sugar cakes, washing dishes with my cousins after a big Sunday dinner, the hassock filled with greeting cards they had received through the years, their flower gardens and sidewalk lined with portulacas, and the beautiful wisteria tree in their backyard.

Jennie and Jake, in front of 265 N. Main, probably around the time
my mother remembered her quilting...and in the backyard in front
of the wisteria tree, an established backdrop for many family photos.

My great-grandparents as I remember them,
less than a year before Jennie died.
Jennie was always eager to open her home. She would cook all day on Saturdays so she could invite people to join them for dinner after church on Sundays. Though I don't remember it, my mom and I lived with them for a few months when I was about a year old, while my dad was finishing his time in the Navy. I love the thought of that quilt being stitched in the house where four generations lived for some time of their lives: my great- grandparents, my grandmother, my mom, and me. This simple quilt made from rags and bags covers all the generations with Jennie's love. Its story is rich, and I am so happy to know something of it.

While there was no written record kept for the quilt, we had enough information from which to piece many of the particulars of the story of my Grandmother's Flower Garden quilt. We may have filled in some gaps with speculation, but for the most part, we know who made it and where, as well as why they made the quilt. However, the story of Kara's Dresden Plate quilt is different. She knows little about how or why this beauty was made, but yearns to know its history. Sadly, the time has passed to ask questions, for those who would have known the answers are gone.

If you have needlework that has been passed down to you, ask someone who might know something about who made it, where, why, how. Ask for stories about the maker if you didn't know her. And share those tales! 

Our needlework, quilts and otherwise, gives us opportunities to tell our stories to our descendants. Write the details of your needlework on labels secured to the back of the quilts, or keep them in a notebook. Share the information of your quilts with your children, so they can share with theirs, and so on. How comforting to know that our great grandchildren will know the stories of our lives stitched into our quilts, so that they can share that history with their grandchildren. Otherwise, they may have to make up their own stories...and while they may be a bit more exciting than true life, aren't our real stories what we want them to know of us?

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