19 January 2010

Quilts from the 1930s: the butterfly quilt

We all inherited quilts from my grandmother as we reached adulthood or a reasonable facsimile thereof, there being several of us in my generation who do not consider ourselves to be actual grown-ups even yet. Most of these quilts were made in the 1930s and 1940s, when my great-grandmother was alive and well and had her quilting frames available. These were rigged on a pulley system so that they could be stored at ceiling level when they were not in use. Gran Brooks pieced by hand or machine, appliqued by hand, and quilted exclusively by hand. I would kill for her set-up today.

The fabrics from the 1930s are classic and are now being reproduced. The prints are tiny conversation prints, and the colors are bright and clear. Quilting had zoomed in popularity during the Depression, as it has again in our tough times, and new processes made a wide range of colors and prints more available. Women's magazines and local newspapers, most famously the Kansas City Star, ran quilt block patterns for their subscribers, and many quilters faithfully clipped and kept these. More than one friend has mentioned that their mothers or grandmothers subscribed to these publications only for the quilt patterns. It was a joyous feature in a bleak time.

This butterfly quilt is a classic 30s applique pattern that may have been a Star pattern, although the only one I can find in the Star archives is pieced. It was a gift from my grandmother to our co-blogger Tartan Girl when she reached her semblance of adulthood, and had already suffered damage from being folded and stored too long. Some of the fabrics were very durable, some were faded, and some had simply disintegrated, victims of the cloth, the dye and time itself.

This was obviously a child's quilt, a quilt for a little girl. My mother can look at this quilt and identify her childhood dresses that went into it. This was a way of using and re-using precious fabric scraps, of making do with what was at hand. My grandmother, to the end of her life, disliked and distrusted quilts that were made wholly with fabric bought for that purpose. As she said at a quilt show, a bit tartly, "That isn't what quilts are supposed to be." So the butterflies are each unique, from different shirts and dresses, and they have aged in very different ways. Tartan Girl wants to fix the damage so that the quilt will continue to bring joy.

What we, the quilt women of the family, have decided to do is to replace the threadbare wings and bodies with reproduction fabric as close to the original as we can get, or guess, without removing any of the original work. The old butterflies that are too deteriorated to be repaired with careful silk thread work will be covered by new butterflies and embroidery. If anyone ever wants to study the quilt, they will find the original work under the new stitches. We will back the quilt with a new and sturdier backing, so that the old fabric is eased and protected.

Absolutely everyone I have consulted about this has offered the same words of wisdom, at first startling to museum people: use the quilt, joyfully, happily. Lay it on a bed, hang it carefully on a wall, but do not put it away in the dark to be forgotten. Use it. Quilts are made for warmth, sharing and comfort. These are a direct point of contact across four generations. The wear is part of the story.

I hope that we get back to this quilt this year and have it returned to its cheerful warmth for Tartan soon.

This post was approved by Mel Blanc, feline quilt line supervisor.

 And my mother thinks I should be a quilt appraiser when I grow up.


Anonymous said...

What a beautiful quilt! I absolutely love the butterflies!
Good luck with the restoration . . . sounds like a wonderful solution!

Ksbelle said...

And three years later I find we are in much the same situation. Two quilt tops have surfaced from a grandmother who was born 1901. I am beginning my research for her all hand pieced quilt. We all are in Kansas so will be checking out the Star for possible patterns she used- one is a "sawblade" or "sun ray" with curved rays. Never seen it before. Thank you for the head start you have given me.