I started this blog two years ago with the goal of writing about my quilting. Instead, the blog has become more of a hiking and travel journal, with a side of crafting. Here, at last, is my first quilt story! It is a common lament in the quilt world that many quilts are unlabeled and their stories are lost to history. My first quilt story, which includes a bit of my history, is about my oldest, my first quilt.
Quilt Story 1: Sunbonnet Sue, 1975
My childhood best friend, Susan, moved from Minnesota to our neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley of southern California in the early 1960s. Her Mom, Sally, often gave us projects to keep us busy – everything from polishing their family’s antique whaling lamps and silver, to baking bread and cookies, to making candles, macrame and clothing. Sally showed us how to make Sunbonnet Sue blocks when we were about 14 or 15 years old – this would have been about 1970 or 1971.
We began by cutting templates out of construction paper. Then we raided our family’s overflowing scrap boxes for fabric. Both of our moms sewed, and my sisters and I also made some of our own clothing. We had fun choosing fabrics for the dress, bonnet, arm and shoe patches. We sewed the pieces onto white background fabric, possibly from an old sheet, using an overcast hand appliqué stitch. We each created a stack of blocks but then lost momentum. My blocks sat in a drawer for a few years.
In 1975 I wanted a warm quilt to take with me to college in northern California. I made additional Sunbonnet Sues using scraps from recently made clothes, but did not have enough blocks for a bed-sized quilt. I raided both families’ fabric stashes again and cut out 5 inch squares from a wide mix of scraps. I sewed the squares together with half inch seam allowances, and determined a layout that would float the Sunbonnet Sue blocks between rows of patchwork. I found a backing fabric at the discount fabric shop, and I also bought a roll of 2″ thick polyester batting. I finagled a quilt sandwich with straight pins, and somehow managed to force the quilt under the foot of my Mom’s sturdy Kenmore sewing machine, stitching in the ditch around all the squares. I found fabric for the binding, again from the scrap box, and attached it by hand.
I brought the quilt with me to college and continued to use it for a good 20 years. I patched it and restitched much of the appliqué, and eventually the batting flattened down to about a quarter inch thick.
Construction commentary: This quilt represents to me a big chunk of my youth – and also, I love the audacity of youth that this quilt reveals. I finished Sunbonnet Sue in a way that made sense to me at the time. I remember thinking I didn’t need the full 5/8 inch seam allowance used for garment sewing – 1/2 inch should be plenty. I also had the idea that a patchwork quilt should not be made of new fabric, and should have as many different scrap fabrics as possible – though I did have the option to not use fabric that I didn’t like. There were no blogs or online tutorials – we had one Dover quilt book. I consulted my Mom, but she had never made a quilt, though she had made curtains, bed spreads and cushion covers as well as clothing. (She could also knit, crochet, tat, and change the oil and spark plugs and adjust the carburetor in an automobile engine while single handedly feeding and clothing nine children – but that’s a story for another day.) The wide seam allowances, thick batting and wide binding are not what I do today, but they worked to complete my quilt.
I love the personal history of the fabric in this quilt – I see mine and my sisters’ and my friends’ childhood wardrobes, with many fond memories of people, place and time. I also love that this quilt reflects what I considered at the time to be the true spirit of patchwork quilting – making something from the scraps of both material and memories. This was during the early seventies anti-establishment/anti-war/back to the land movement, which defined the paths that I and a few of my siblings would choose as young adults. We went to war protests, dug up our lawn to plant a garden, joined a food coop, and eventually moved out of the city to northern California or Oregon. Susan never finished her quilt, but during a visit a few years ago we enjoyed looking at all the fabrics and remembering when and where we wore them when we were young. I wish I had photos of us in some of the clothes, but alas, I do not. Just the patches in this well worn quilt.