Grandfathers and Quilts

What do grandfathers and quilts have in common? I am sure there are stories out there of grandfathers who quilted, but they have got to be far and few between. My grandfather was born October 12, 1905, and in his day, men did not sew or quilt or do any of that women stuff, as he called it. I can hear him saying in his deep gruff voice, “Men were men then.”

Walter & Ruth Russell June 2, 1930

Walter & Ruth Russell June 2, 1930

Quilts from the turn of the century, were usually utilitarian. They were to be used and not for show. Well my grandfather took that to its fullest meaning.

It was a brisk autumn day. We were all satisfied from the Thanksgiving feast the day before. The heat was on inside their cozy little apartment. Grammie, Mike and I were all snuggled together on their elegant handmade couch listening to Poppy in his stuffed chair tell one his enthralling stories about living during the turn of the century. My fingers were busy appliqueing them a felted Christmas tree skirt with the nativity scene wrapped completely around the skirt. It had taken me every night for months to get to this point and I wanted to finish their Christmas gift quickly as they were putting up the Christmas tree that weekend.

Poppy had been telling many stories all morning. We had eaten leftovers for lunch, and as we listened to more stories, we were all getting a little weary. We just sat in the silence for a few moments. Eyes seemed to be fixated on my sewing, but I was relishing the opportunity to sew uninterrupted. Out of the blue, my grandfather started crying and said, “One minute, I will be right back.” That minute seemed like an eternity as we could hear him moving things around in the basement. What could have stirred him to tears?

When he came back up the stairs, he was carrying a crumpled trash bag. Before he opened the bag, he stood and told another story of his grandmother. How he would sit for hours and watch her make quilts, but that he never thought about how tedious the job was or what a labor of love it was until he was sitting there watching me sew by hand. He was overcome by the fact of he had taken his grandmother’s hand quilting for granted.

Then out came the treasure…my great-great grandmother’s quilt. But his story had to continue before he laid it out before me. He was sobbing like a baby as he apologized to his grandmother and me. He had been given the quilt as a young boy and used the quilt all his life, but not to keep him warm, as one would expect, but as a drop cloth! A drop cloth! He loved using it to paint and work under his card because it was so absorbent and padded. It was tattered and covered in paint. (Maybe his real aversion was the fact that it was a sunbonnet Sue quilt. I honestly cannot imagine him ever using this.)


The applique was very simple stitching, but it was mine - holes, paint and all, and I love it dearly. It is a treasure that no one can replace. That was Thanksgiving 1979, in Livonia, MI and my grandfather passed away shortly after that. I am so glad that he thought to gift me with that quilt and its story before it slipped into a memory that never would have been shared. It is the tears that make it so precious.

There are other such quilts out there that have real life stories and have real life splattered all over them. What is your closet quilt story?