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An Old Favorite

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My grandma turned 91 years old yesterday. In honor of that, today I thought I would re-run one of my all-time favorite blog posts, starring some special quilt blocks that she made. I think I had about 20 followers back when this post originally ran, so it’s new to most of you. : ) And besides, it’s taken on new relevance for me with the release of Vintage Quilt Revival in just a few months. I think this quilt was my first (conscious) effort at combining traditional and modern aesthetics. I’m not sure how successful it was on that front, especially compared to some of my more recent projects, but I think it’s worth a look back anyway, for many reasons! Enjoy!

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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 that was done 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.”

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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 probably 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 suddenly 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.

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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.

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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.

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But of course, as that third-generation girl got older, the world changed yet again. Sewing isn’t considered so dorky anymore—in fact, “handmade” is now experiencing a coolness renaissance. Maybe enough time has passed that we feel we can come back to these “women’s” crafts without sacrificing the advances we’ve made in less-traditional areas. 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 just less important than 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).

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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 culturally expected of me as a woman. I just 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 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, which I’m calling 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.

Happy birthday, Grandma! Love you!

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  1. Kelly Young
    Kelly Young says:

    I love this post, Lee. My grandmother grew up very poor on a dairy farm, and does quilt, but mostly out of habit. In fact, she doesn't do it very much anymore. My mom grew up in the late 60's and 70's and can't even sew on a button. Then there's me, who loved the creative part of my grandmother's quilting and appreciated the creative side of it it even as a child. I absolutely LOVE quilting and made my first one almost 15 years ago- right after my husband and I got married. Your family story rings so true, and is so touching. Thanks for sharing this piece of yourself with us!

    🙂 Kelly @ My Quilt Infatuation

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  2. Kelli
    Kelli says:

    I love this post as well! I have some of my great-grandmother's quilt blocks and templates waiting for that day when I'm ready to tackle making enough that I can have a special quilt with her handiwork in it.

    It is a special treat to sit at my machine and make what makes my heart happy instead of making clothing and bedding as a must. And I look back at vintage quilts both from my family and elsewhere and I see the little bits of artistry thrown into a need-based item. Where previous generations made their own hearts happy too. 🙂

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  3. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    I loved this story Lee. Thank you for sharing. The history is very similar in my family, but not with making quilts but instead all other forms of sewing and handcraft. My a mum has experimented in quilting and I'm addicted. Our ancestors came from Germany about the same time as yours, but to Australia. There are many Heinrichs is South Australia!

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