An Olden Quilting Party

An Olden Quilting Party

by Garetta Hatch Pierce
reprinted from The Dearborn Independent, March 20, 1926

All the early American quilts were named. Hence we have such names as The Coach Wheel, The Flower Pot, The Tulip, The Oak Leaf, The Snake Fence, The Log Cabin, The Crow Foot, The Star, The Rising Sun, The Irish Chain, The Nine Patch and scores of others. There are such unique names as Robbing-Peter-To-Pay-Paul and The Old Maid’s Dream. The former is an ingenious design in which a part of one figure is carried over into the next to complete it. The significance of the latter name is obscure. But whoever it was who dreamed its intricate design and splendid colors and then executed the work assuredly had a flair for beauty.

In the days when motion pictures and automobiles were undreamed of, when books were not so plentiful as now, when many of the necessities as we know them today were inconceivable luxuries, there prevailed an excellent custom for making work an amusement, for fostering a spirit of helpfulness that tended toward comradeship, and helped to destroy that loneliness so common in the isolated pioneer homes

It was the custom of “bees,” in which all the people of the countryside joined to perform the work of some neighbor. There were the “raisings,” when a house or barn of logs was to be built. There were the logging bees, when trees were cut and hauled from a piece of land, thus preparing it for cultivation. People from miles around would gather at the spot; and many hands made light work and cheerful hearts. And when the task was finished there would be feasting and frolicking, games or dancing.

There were paring bees, when apples were pared, quartered, cored, and strung from rafts, there to be dried by the heat from the glowing fireplace; husking bees, in which the farmer’s crop of corn was husked and stored in capacious cribs; threshing bees, still held in some parts of the country; wood bees and bridge bees, where many accomplished easily what one could not do alone; and within the homes were sewing bees, for sick neighbors, perhaps, or for the needy of the district.

And then there were the quilting bees. As long as old-time quilts are used to grace and beautify beds, just so long will the memory of these bees remain. It was a slow task to transform countless bits of calico into a quilt of varied patterns, a thing of beauty and taste, but it was a loved one, for therein lay almost the sole outlet for the artistic genius of the countryside. Many are the treasures of this art still in existence, and art it surely was.

An Olden Quilting Party

A quilt was to be made for the minister.

Weeks of preparation preceded the bee. Each woman pieced a block according to her means and skill (and, wonder of wonders, they were all nearly of a size when joined together in a medley of figures like the vagaries of a turning kaleidoscope, but mathematically square). There was some discussion as to whose block should occupy the most prominent place, and ultimately it was given to the daughter of a ne’er-do-well who gave promise of a brighter life. Next the lining and cotton must be bought. A committee of three was chosen, and a trip taken to the next town.

At last the preliminaries were completed—the lining, batting, and cover fastened on the frame—and the ladies all assembled for the quilting.

Each brought a basket, a contribution to the feast which was the most important part of the day’s doings to us children. One woman brought two pyramids of butter, shaped like two huge pineapples, the sides covered by fluted leaves. There were “ris” biscuits, friedcakes with the traditional hole in the middle, doughnuts like twisted ropes piled high, fried chicken, a boiled ham, cookies, innumerable pies, cheese, pickles, preserves, baked apples, baked pears, and tea. Truly a feast no one could despise.

The expert quilters soon began their work. They marked the herringbone line with a piece of chalked twine. This was held taut while a helper lifted and snapped it. The resulting plain white line showed where to quilt. The needles flew in and out and the quilt began to assume shape.

There were some drawbacks to the pleasure. One woman had economically dyed the delaine dress which she wore. The wool had “taken” but the cotton had not. And, notwithstanding her repeated washings, whenever she laid her arm on the pretty quilt it left a smudge. Tongues flew as well as needles, and the ears of “little pitchers” heard and remembered. The women discussed last Sunday’s sermon, which had been about the increasing slave power. One illustration I remember: “You might as well try to extinguish the fires of Mount Etna with feathers as to prevent the coming upheaval with compromise and talk.”

Fragments reached our wondering ears: A voice above the din: “When I was a little girl a man, dressed all in white, appeared before my father, who was chopping in the woods, and said: ‘One year from today I will preach here.’ Then he departed.”

Of course such an apparition was much talked of, and neighbors filled up the space in the woods with rude seats and a platform. At the appointed time a large audience assembled and the “White Pilgrim” came and preached a sermon they never forgot. The evangelists of that time—the White Pilgrim, Peter Cartwright, Lorenzo Dow and many others—made a permanent impression upon the settlers.

Bits of local history began to be remembered—a little girl, lost in the forest, slept for two lonely nights beside two kind “dogs” who kept her warm. A hunter discovered the “dogs” to be bears; and they lost their lives through their kindness.

Another child, a little boy, only two years old, was stolen by the Indians and reared by them. When nearly grown he was discovered by a missionary and returned to his own people. The boy expected to have been forgotten, but his mother saw the group coming and shouted his name.

And so the time passed quickly. The quilting was finished, the quilt bound, the feast demolished, and a committee appointed to present it to the preacher’s wife.

A few months later the firing on Fort Sumpter echoed through the land. We were unprepared, as we always have been, for war. When the first call was made and volunteers began to pour into Washington there were not sufficient tents, muskets, or blankets, and eager citizens supplied what they could.

And thus our gift to the pastor was caught up in the bloody maelstrom of war.