I got into quilting about 12 years ago, now, after a week-long visit with my grandparents in California, hearing Grampa Leins (my dad’s dad) talk about his love of beautiful fabric and men’s clothing from the 40s (and hearing about the family quilt made of men’s wool suits that we still have–that sucker weighs 90 lbs, feels like). While I was visiting with them, Ben (my fella/husband) was working, and I had a big chunk of quieter times with my grandparents. Gramma Nita had a 1947 in-cabinet Singer that literally everyone in the family had used at some point: my aunts and uncles made their own outdoor gear including down sleeping bags and booties from catalog mail-order pieces, the cousins had made simple dresses and doll clothes, and now it was my turn. Gramma took me to the local quilt shop, I got my Alex Andersen quilt book, rotary cutter and mat, and fabric, and off I went. Who needs a quarter inch foot? Not this gal. Coffee table? good enough!
It was only later, though, that I found out about the other side of the family and their lives in quilts. We had always had a Double Wedding Ring quilt hanging on the wall of my parents’ house from my mom’s side of the family, the Townzens. She had rescued it from the attic years and years ago (sometime in the late 70s or early 80s, I think), from a side of the family that still remembered these quilts being equated with the family poverty and hardships of the Depression, and so they were literally hidden away, shameful and not fit to be seen, a testament to very hard times.
My great Gramma Townzen was a great lover of quilting–she was piecing every spare second and would save up her egg money for months to have the 25 cents to buy a bag of scraps from the big dressmaking companies up north. They lived in a small cabin in Tennessee, with dirt floors and very little in the way of possessions. She loved her quilts, the colors and fabrics she could use, and it brought her great joy, according to one of my aunts who knew her when she was alive. I imagine that these quilts may have been what kept them from literally freezing some winters, layered on the beds with the good ones (or rather, the ones in the best shape) kept in the middle somewhere, until company came over. The ones that were shabbiest would be on the bottom, and the serviceable ones were on top, for family use.
Before Grampa Townzen passed away, though, I got to see three other quilts, which I now am honored to have with me in my home. I’m sharing the first of these quilts with you, because they really inspire me, and started the mental wheels turning about what quilting is and what it means, particularly in the “modern” context. See, I recently heard Mark Lipinski say that he doesn’t understand “modern” quilting, because squares in squares get boring after a while. It got me thinking about how I would define modern quilting, because while I totally get what he’s saying, I think he misses the point, looking at it solely from a position within the quilting world.
To me, modern quilting fits into a much larger context–there’s a huge DIY movement that people around my generation (think Gen X and Y) really belong to. It’s the kind of culture that delights in making things by hand, from pickles to quilts to furniture to bread, the list goes on and on, the very things that earlier generations couldn’t get rid of or past fast enough. It’s the kind of culture where people educate themselves on how to keep chickens in their backyards, have sheep for the wool, have pigs for the bacon. Modern quilting, when defined by a single style (minimalist or otherwise) doesn’t make much sense to me, but modern quilts do, when I think of how they fit into this DIY movement: the whole point is that they are made to be used, washed, loved, used again, and that it doesn’t really matter whether it fits a specific style or “look”, but that it fits into a context of making things for a specific home function.
To me, I see a very VERY strong link with Depression era quilts and quilting, particularly by people like my family. And, as I think you will see, there are some strong similarities with style, too:
My Grampa Townzen was 6 when he carded the batting for the double wedding ring quilt (“Those ladies were our neighbors, and told the best gossip when they quilted. They didn’t think I was listening, because I was a little boy.”), and he remembers helping with this quilt, too.
I’m part of a Modern Improv Bee, and November is my month! In honor of this family quilt, which I can’t use, I have asked my Bee members to make their own improv blocks with red and blue as the center stripe, but they have free reign for everything else. I thought it might be fun to share it wit you, too.
I’ve made a paper pieced block for ease and convenience here: Gramma Townzens Block (PDF)
And I’ve written instructions right here: MandysNovemberBlockInstructions (PDF) I don’t think Great Gramma Townzen would have used it, though, so you can kinda get an idea of what she might have done from the blocks in the picture above and wing it, like she probably did. Each finished block is 7″ square. To make one bigger unit, you will want four of the blocks. I’d love to see if you make some! Upload them to my flickr project page for Mandalei Quilts