Monday, March 12, 2012

Quilts: Utility or Art?

During my  childhood quilts were synonymous with poverty and the need to be utilitarian. That sphere of my life was defined by the practical demands of daily life and by a constant availability of thread-bare or out-dated men’s suits. A quilt represented the end product for scraps of imported British woolens my father toted home from the clothing factory where he toiled. Quilts were the destiny of winterweight fabric remnants. These my mother collected from the floor of her dressmaking room.

My parents emigrated to Quebec province from war torn Europe in 1949. And like the quilts my mother sewed, my parents endeavored to stitch new lives from scraps of the old country they toted with them. Those, too, were thread bare and out-dated. Those scraps survived almost entirely in their
memories. I saw no beauty in quilts. To me, their provenance was based in scarcity and necessity. They were covers created from remains, sewn together to provide warmth that otherwise was not to be found. My mother fashioned our quilts in lean times when money was scarce. We fantasized about indulging in
lush, warmly colored Hudson Bay blankets. I could see no artistry in the quilts. Surely, I felt no pride.
On Saturday evenings, after my mother had cleaned the dinner dishes, she retreated to her corner sewing room, my father’s complaints fading down the hall. “We just finished dinner. Leave your work room, wait until Monday.”

“A few minutes. It’s all I need.” She countered. “If I don’t put my workroom in order, nice and neat for Monday, I’ll have a bad start.” My brother and I could hear her working nimbly. The sharp steel of her dressmaking shears slid smoothly with an economy of movement. Stacking scraps of cloth, she cut symmetrical squares, usually for fifteen minutes. On Sundays, while my father  dozed, his stomach filled with potato pancakes and sour cream, my mother created our warmth in quilts—doubled sided!

At night, tucked into our quilts, she warmed us more with stories about each square.


  1. I love the layers within the story you share, Marlene. This is so delightfully rich. Utility or art? I'd say both, with a definite art in economy. :)

  2. Judy-thanks so much for your comment. Sorry it took me so long to get back to you. Still figuring out how to find posts from my "followers".

  3. What got me started on quilts etc. was a comment in Pioneer Women - JoAnne Stratton I believe .. "we slept with our noses four inches from the wooden boards of the roof of our cabin .. North Dakota 1870 .. could see the stars and feel the snow through them .. and we were snuggled under seven buffalo hides .. and I imagined the weight of such an affair.

  4. Amazing to imagine those times, but then again- it's almost unimaginable that in days before down comforters, polar fleece fabrics, indoor heating and electric blankets (never mind roofs that kept snow out), that ANYONE even dared to be in North Dakota! One missing fact: how many of these folks do you imagine might have been immobilized under those hides? And forget the weight - how about the smells?


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