How to Read a Handmade Quilt

How to Read a Handmade Quilt

Note to the reader: Before you read, I’d like to acknowledge that women were and are not the only quiltmakers! Non-binary and gender fluid people, along with men, practiced quilting throughout history. I often use gender neutral terms to portray this. However, I also frequently use “women” to describe quilters. I’ve done this intentionally to center women’s stories and voices. It’s important to me to honor and write women-centered stories in a world that still routinely devalues them.

Step One

Unfold the quilt with reverence. The maker has imbued their heart and energy into this textile. Many quilts are made with love and intention for the recipient while some are sewn to mend a broken and grieving heart. Tears rained down on the fabric and sorrows were laid between the seams. If hand-quilted, the quilter quite likely pricked their finger, leaving behind a trace of blood somewhere on the

batting. The quilter might have tied the comforter together in dazed monotony or sewed in hours of sweet meditation.

Step Two

Observe the patchwork of pieces. Watch them come together into a kaleidoscope of beauty. See if you can find the pattern in an index of traditional quilt blocks. If the design is unique, the maker is a geometrist. Creating a new quilt block pattern requires a deep and thorough mathematical understanding of the process. One must calculate the correct angles to allow a quilt block to lie flat, and account for many tiny measurements of seam allowances throughout the quilt block. If it is familiar, it carries a folk tradition within its shape. For centuries quiltmakers (most of them women) have been practicing the complex techniques of quilt block construction and passing them down through the generations.

Step Three

Wonder at the choice of fabric. Was it joyfully selected from a row of freshly minted prints? Notice how many different fabrics are included. If there are only two or three, the cloth was probably purchased new specifically for the quilt. However, if each quilt block is different perhaps this textile was made from scraps. The pieces lived before coming together as a blanket. Was that striped piece Dad’s old shirt? That flannel patch you see wrapped a newborn baby and the polyester blend was sewn up for a teen in the latest style. The fabrics can tell you the taste of the maker and give clues as to the time of creation.

Step Four

Note the level of wear. If this artifact is old and faded but perfectly preserved, it was displayed to beautify a home. Conversely, a ragged blanket has warmed a family for generations. Imagine how those frayed edges once tucked under a child’s chin on a winter night. Perhaps the quilt was spread on fresh grass for a picnic or a summer stargaze. Notice how some fabrics have remained intact, while others are all but gone. Perhaps this quilt was made with a mix of new and old textiles. It’s made of cherished memories and fresh hopes.

Step Five

Study the stitching. If the quilt was stitched by hand, each stitch is the signature of the maker. Embedded in the layers are hours of slow, methodical work. Maybe it was quilted at night while sitting next to the bed of a toddler or quilted while watching the news. It was probably set upon a quilting frame. Young kids might have played under this makeshift fort while their caretaker deftly sewed. Of course, it may have been put together at a quilting bee (which were historically also called “quiltings” or “quilting parties”). Although men produced quilts throughout history, these gatherings were important, woman-centered social spaces. Imagine a group of women sitting around the quilt sharing life's joys and sorrows. They swapped worries for laughter and concerns for support. The thread that they stitched was a lifeline of community and kinship. Many quilting parties also became community events, with dancing and music after the quilt was finished.

Step Six

Dive Deeper. Research to see if you can learn more about the origins of your piece. Learn the proper way to preserve it-- whether that be storage, display, or everyday use. You might decide to leave the textile as is and keep it on display or give it new life through mending. Whether you choose to patch the torn pieces of the blanket, use conservation techniques to prevent further degradation, or create something else entirely, you are now working collaboratively with someone who lived long ago. You’ll notice new things in this quilt, more than you would have at surface level.

Step Seven

Cherish this handcrafted object. Quilts blur the lines between art and craft. Throughout history, many quilts have been made as beautiful, utilitarian objects while others have been made purely for decoration. However, quilting and other textile art have been (and still are) devalued as both an art and craft. Nevertheless, American quilting is a beautiful and innovative tradition, and most techniques and designs that were developed by women throughout history were created purely for their aesthetic value and creative expression. As one young quiltmaker wrote, “quilts kind of filled in for the disappointment of not going to school to learn to be an artist.” Of course, not all quilts share the same level of skill in their craftswomanship. The blanket in your possession may be a perfectly preserved art quilt, an expertly crafted functional bed covering, or it may be a hastily tied comforter made to warm a family member. Either way, treasure this heirloom and become part of its story.

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