Eighty-eight years ago, a little girl was born on a farm in rural Michigan. She was the second-youngest of nine kids. As a child, this little girl watched her own mother, who was the daughter of German immigrants, sew and quilt—something she did far more out of necessity than enjoyment. It was the Great Depression, and those nine kids needed clothes and bedding. Buying a quilt from a store would have been an unthinkable luxury.
And so, the little girl learned to sew and quilt too, just like her mother before her. It was just one of the many chores that needed to be done around the farm. Yet another item on that list called “Women’s Work.”
Three of my grandma’s original five blocks
The little girl grew up, moved away from the farm, and had five kids of her own. Money was still tight, but not quite like it used to be. She still sewed and quilted here and there, but the necessity of it declined steadily as the years passed. Quilting became something she did more out of habit than anything else. Around the time her youngest child moved out of the house, she hand-pieced five curved pinwheel quilt blocks. Then she put those blocks away and never sewed another. Why? Maybe it was her arthritis flaring up. Or maybe she realized she didn’t have to quilt anymore. What had once been a chore no longer was. Store-bought bedding was well within reach financially. And she finally had a little time to herself, to do exactly what she really wanted to do, probably for the first time in her adult life.
Now the little girl obviously wasn’t a little girl anymore. In fact, she had three adult daughters of her own. And those grown-up girls had all learned to sew too. Sewing was, after all, still on that list of Women’s Work. Even if these girls didn’t end up needing this particular skill, they were still expected to have it. So they all dabbled in it a little.
But the world was changing. It was becoming less expensive to buy bedding than it was to make a homemade quilt. Not only that, but that Women’s Work list? Was getting turned upside down. Women could do many things now that weren’t on that list. In fact, for a while, it became necessary for some women to put the list aside. They had to temporarily distance themselves from it, in order to prove they could do other things. One of the original little girl’s grown daughters now had a daughter of her own, and that little girl grew up thinking sewing was just about the most uncool thing imaginable. Seriously. She wouldn’t be caught dead sewing her own clothes, bags, or a quilt.
But of course, as that third-generation girl got older, the world changed yet again. Sewing is no longer a life-sentence to dorkiness. In fact, “handmade” is experiencing a coolness renaissance. Maybe this third generation has decided that we’ve done enough to prove ourselves as women (or at least we’re done trying). Maybe we’re tired of made-in-China mass-produced comforters and clothing. Maybe all the other things that might keep us from quilting and sewing are now taking a back seat to creative expression. In fact, for so many of us, it’s a wonderful way of expressing ourselves and getting a little more fulfillment in life (and we’re lucky that we have the time and money to spend on it).
Whatever the reason, I have my mom and my grandma to thank for the fact that I am able to quilt today. I don’t do it out of necessity. I don’t do it because it’s expected of me as “women’s work.” I do it because I love it. How lucky does that make me? (And all of us!) In a way, I can do it only because of the inroads women made in the previous two generations.
So, a few months ago, I took those five blocks that my grandmother hand-pieced 40 years ago and made 12 more. My mom made a handful as well. And we put them all together into this quilt: The Three Generations Quilt. I tried to make it both a little vintage and a little modern. A little fun and a little serious. I tried to put a little piece of all three of us in there. I tried to make it representative of our stories: Three generations, and what sewing and quilting has meant to us, as women and as creative people.
Size: 86″ x 93″ (queen size – the picture above is on a king-size bed) Design: Based on Red Pepper Quilt’s Pinwheel Baby Quilt Fabric: The pinwheels are mostly vintage fabric (my grandma gave a lot of her unused fabric to me). I supplemented that with some of my own, mostly Katie Jump Rope by Denyse Schmidt. The centers are Moda Bella Solids Baby Yellow. The white pinwheel background is Kona White (although I think my grandma’s blocks used repurposed sheets). The borders around the blocks are from Darlene Zimmerman’s Paper Dolls line, and the sashing is Kona Tan. Back: Paper Dolls again, plus I pieced blocks of scraps down one side. Quilting: Stippling in white thread, done by the long-arm quilter at my local quilt shop.