The Footnote

bookSomewhere this side of a hundred years ago, I was a young college coed doing anything and everything I could to avoid taking a foreign language.  Evidently that gene, the foreign language gene, also skipped my children and grandchildren, all of whom struggled through the minimum number of required foreign language units to graduate from high school and college.

I tried to circumvent the entire issue by changing majors five or six hundred times, although eventually I succumbed to the inevitable and took the mandated two semesters of French, which was essentially the same course I had taken in high school, just at warp speed.

Parlez-vous français?  Anyone?  Anyone?

The upshot, however, was that all my maneuvering to avoid the language requirement meant that I had almost sufficient units to graduate with any combination of four majors:  English, History, Political Science, Philosophy.  While I love them all, I opted for the first two and barely graduated, given the foreign language albatross, with a double major.

I was pretty sure I’d never use philosophy for any credible activity in life, but I was very wrong.  As a young, newly married wife, my now ex, an engineer in both career and mentality, was caught in the same foreign language conundrum, except he had to take an Intro to Philosophy class. 

He came home after the first class, weighted down with volumes of Thermodynamics, Heat Transfer, FORTRAN (remember those days?) and a slim volume of Plato’s Republic.  He could handle the engineering, even the FORTRAN, but write a paper on the Introduction to the Republic? A fate worse than French, evidently.

I jumped on it. I can do this.  I love Plato.  He looked at me like he had just discovered something new and unique about his bride.  It wasn’t a good unique and, in retrospect, probably a precursor of things to come.

Long story short, I threw myself into the paper, analyzing every nuance and waxing and waning Plato.  The soon-to-be ex turned in the paper without a second look and was horrified to later learn that out of the intro class of a few hundred students, he was one of five — count ’em, five — students who were now honor students and would meet individually on a weekly basis with the professor to chat about philosophy.  He did make it through the class, and if I remember correctly, we did get an A.

But I digress.  This is really about a footnote in a college history text.  I recently recalled reading about the horrific journey of a young wife making her way with husband and young children across this nation’s lands to settle in some godforsaken place.

The author had quoted her, no doubt from some long-saved letter to relatives back home. Thank goodness for my quilting. I don’t know how I would have survived without it.

At the time, I remember thinking, good grief, that woman needs a life.

Of course, she had a life, much more challenging than ours, but I just couldn’t get my head around the comment about quilting.  In my mind’s eye, quilting was nothing more than a tedious chore.

I’m here to tell you, I was wrong on that one, too.

There’s the design part of quilting that is so creative, placing and playing with fabrics until the design comes together and dances.  It’s pure magic when that happens, regardless of the century.

And then, once you know where you’re hopefully headed, comes a quiet meditation in sewing the pieces.  The mind quiets and the process that I once thought so tedious is actually a much welcomed escape from this era’s frenetic chaos and threats, perceived or real.

Interesting, isn’t it, that the more things change, the more we stay the same?

An Unexpected History

Century Quilt Top

I have officially completed the top of the Century Quilt without harming myself or the sewing machine. It just goes to show what can be completed in the dead of winter when one is (a) retired with no responsibilities other than feeding the cat and (b) there are no little ones underfoot.

While I was ripping out far too many seams, swearing at my stupidity and the @#($%&  mess of tangled thread, bent needles and/or sewing machine, a chance remark by a dear friend regarding the cultural and historical context of quilting got me thinking in a non-sewing direction.

I knew nothing about the history of quilts so it was a very healthy diversion from throwing out everything and taking up solitaire as a hobby.

I also had noted a trend as I started seeking out quilting blogs and websites when I needed help or advice, which happened a whole lot. Most of the sites began with Insert your favorite profanity here before proceeding with troubleshooting remedies.

I found I had remembered words my dad had learned in WWII and had unintentionally used in front of us kids.

That made me wonder more about the culture surrounding quilting.  I also wondered about the politics of quilting, given that most of the women I know aren’t especially silent, especially on matters of importance, and their opinions surface in all kinds of formats.

A little investigation quickly showed that women were not terribly silent in the past and politics played a very major role in quilts.

Apparently, quilting was not all that common in early American history, or any history for that matter, except for the 1 Per Centers who could afford fabric.  For the average woman, material was far too expensive and time was better spent spinning, weaving and sewing clothes or mending blankets. It wasn’t until much later, when affordable fabrics were available that quilting became commonplace.

American quilting designs were grounded in religion and politics, God’s Eye (see below) as a reminder of both God’s protection and religious freedom, but so much about quilts and quilting has been romanticized over time. 

Quilting bees? ah, no.  Maybe a friend or two, but the romantic notion of women coming together, singing and sewing, is not much more than fiction unless religious or political groups brought women together for one cause or another. 

Given the tangles of thread, I suspect there was more muttering than singing.

There is an entire mythology that has grown around women’s quilts and is more wishful thinking than fact.  This includes the fiction surrounding quilts and the Underground Railroad ~ for example, Jacob’s Ladder Myth, with a black center for the chimney, symbolic of a safe house for run-away slaves on the trail to the North and freedom.  

That said, many Northern women did support the Abolitionist movement, renaming many of their quilt patterns in support of ending slavery. Job’s Tears became Slave Chain by 1825, far in advance of the Civil War.  Freed black women and white women alike formed Female Anti-Slavery Societies. Anti-Slavery Fairs sold donated quilts, clothing and decorative items to underwrite schools for black children, circulate anti-slavery petitions, etc.

These fairs also found their way into churches and other community causes before becoming the basis for raising money for both sides during the Civil War. Southern women made enough money with their Gunboat Quilts to purchase three ironclad gunboats.  Both sides turned their focus to helping soldiers by sewing comfort quilts for them.  It is estimated that the Union women donated over 250,000 quilts to soldiers while Confederate women, with sewing skills more aligned with embroidery and facing a scarcity of material, made quilts for the southern soldiers from any available material, including rugs.

Quilting made bold political statements in the Civil War era, with Log Cabin (a nod to Lincoln’s birthplace and Union support) a favorite among northern women as were Liberty Star and The Lincoln Platform.

Women silent? ah, no. Even without a vote, women were not silent.

Imagine crawling into bed with your sweetie under the Drunkard’s Path Quilt, a favorite of the Temperance Movement, or a Suffrage Quilt promoting the women’s right to vote.

With the 20th century, there was a whole new movement in the quilting world: AIDS, pro-war, anti-war, anti-violence against women…the list seems endless with both men and women finding a voice in their quilts.

Of course, at the top of the list, quilts are a still form of meditation for the quilter, assuming things are going right and ^$*@#&($&  thread is not tangling, as well as a source of protection and comfort for the recipient.

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