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Precious memories of family quilting

I come from a long line of quilters, not the kind that quilt simply for pleasure or as a hobby.

My people quilted out of necessity. They were a people who had to be resourceful in order to survive. And so every worn-out piece of clothing would be torn apart and dissected for the remnants of cloth that were still sturdy.

I remember Mom and Granny cutting shapes for quilt pieces from the cardboard of empty cereal boxes. They used these to cut the pieces of cloth into perfect geometrical shapes to begin the quilt tops. They would hand stitch each piece in the prettiest possible pattern, matching the hodgepodge colors and prints of cloth. As they cut pieces and threaded needles and laid out patterns, there was always visiting going on.

They’d talk about the day, what went on and what needed to be done yet.

I remember the patience and focus they had as they planned each quilt top. Granny would set her jaw just right as she made sure the stitches were tight enough not to tear. As she aged and her eyes began to fail, she’d ask me to thread the needle every now and then.

When the quilt tops were completely pieced together, Granny set up the quilting frames in her tiny living room. There was barely enough space between the couch, the chairs and the coal stove to move around them and, often, we kids would just crawl under the frames to get from one spot to another. It’s at this time that the quilting took on a new life.

Quilting, though necessary, was not always work. When neighbors stopped by, like Mrs. Smith or one of the many Smith family members from up the creek, everyone took up a needle, leaned over the tightly-stretched layers of quilt top, batting and backing, and took up the task of actual quilting.

Granny would put the large, dented tea kettle on the coal stove and soon everyone was offered a cup of tea in mismatched tea cups. The quilting frames became the center of social interaction. Conversation was rich, often humorous, and filled with the neighborhood news.

We kids made a secret fort under the quilting frames that served as a hide away for playing quiet games. Sometimes, we would lay on the floor under the frames and watch the needles slipping in and out of the quilt above us. If several adults were working at once we would try to measure who was doing the most or the quickest work. We could tell when one adult was sharing important news by the slowing of progress on the stitches.

I tried my best to learn the quilting skill. I would love to pass on the magic that happened in Granny’s living room to my daughters. But my stitches were never quite right. I remember Granny saying, “Girl, your stitches are so long somebody’s gonna catch a toenail in them and rip them out.” But Mom and sister Linda made up for my lack of talent. They have made many treasured quilts for each family member.

Today, my family quilts aren’t simply used for warmth. When I’m wrapped in one I find myself sitting in the midst of my own past and soak in the precious memories.


Nora Swango Stanger, a Lawrence County native and Appalachian outreach coordinator for Sinclair Community College, can be reached at norastanger@gmail.com.