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Gramma Illa’s Quilt

Wowie… I visited my Mom Friday. She gave me the quilt I remembered from my childhood, a quilt with a wool top and cotton backing. A quilt I was sure had been lost in the years between my memories and now.

This quilt has been loved, used, and recently stored. My Gramma Illa (that is how she spelled it), my Mom’s mother, made it on the farm in Hanska, Minnesota (a Norwegian community very like the Lake Wobegon Garrison Keillor tells about). I don’t know exactly how old the quilt is, but Mom went to college in 1953 so it was before that, perhaps as many as ten years before.

Mom says that the inside filling of this quilt is another quilt that had worn out. The backing was Gramma’s bedspread at one time. The primary fabric, a loosely-woven twill in beige wool, was purchased as new fabric for Mom’s older sister to make a suit with a skirt. That beige is actually a lot of pieces put together in what appears to be random sections, to make it cover the desired area.

The plaid was a skirt of my mother’s. The solid burgundy was also fabric from a suit that same sister made. The houndstooth (front right corner) was the front panel of a jacket my mother had. She says the side and back panels of that suit were solid navy and the skirt was navy with little tweedy nibs and bits of contrasting color. The gray pinstripe appears to have once been a suit or coat, which Mom says was given to her family but never made into a garment for them as far as she recalls.

The edging appears to be a plain-weave in an early rayon. The navy squares are actually two different fabrics. One is a thin plain-weave wool and the other is a twill in what feels synthetic to me, but might be a high-quality worsted-spun/woven suit fabric. The top is pieced as many quilts are, but it is tied together rather than quilted. Some folks might call that a comforter, but I figure if the top is pieced, it’s a tied quilt. Maybe folks running a modern quilt contest would have categories I don’t know about… but we always called it a quilt and that seems right to me.

Mom says that when they were growing up on the farm, people would give them old clothing to re-use. Gramma’s cousin, Frances (with whom she was raised by their Grandmother as sisters) lived in the small city of Beaver Dam Wisconsin and she would send old clothing regularly. Old adult coats were taken apart at the seams, pressed, turned over so the inside surface became the outside, and smaller coats for children were cut from the pieces. Curtains became blouses for the girls. This is just what was done (in addition to the feed sacks for chicken feed being made of printed fabric… the girls took turns going down to the feed store to choose what print they wanted for a dress, and looked forward to that).

(Addition to post 10am Sept. 25… My mother writes: “Mom was 12 years older than her cousin. When mom was teaching, she would send her slightly used clothes to Frances when Frances was in college. Mom had lovely clothes and hats and enjoyed spending much of her money on clothes in those years. I kind of think that is why Frances sent us the clothes. It was her way of paying Mom back.”)

Nothing was wasted on the farm. Those were different days. These days, when my watch battery runs out or the band wears thin, it’s cheaper to buy a new watch than a new band or battery. I think it would be difficult to live as my mother was raised. (They did not have electricity for a long time, and they hand- pumped water, carried it inside, warmed it on the kitchen stove for a long while. They did get indoor running water at some point, but they had an outhouse until 1955 when Mom got married and her bedroom became the bathroom.) At least they were not throwing away millions of tons of plastic packaging every day. But I digress…

They were practical, they didn’t waste, and they made beautiful things from the resources they did have. In fact, somewhere I have a hot pad that my Gramma crocheted from the strings she pulled from sugar or flour bags when she opened them. She would save the strings until she had enough for a hot pad. It was single-crocheted in two discs, with all the ends going to one side. Then the two discs were placed with smooth sides out, and a crocheted lace was worked on the edges, connecting the two discs into one hot pad. Lovely artform, even though it was a practical thing. If I find it I will be sure to take a photo for you.

Back to the quilt. This quilt has been used a LOT. There is a good-sized rip in the backing which will need repair before I use it. There are at least a dozen small moth holes in the quilt, even though Mom stored it with cedar (she thinks the holes might have been there before she got the quilt). I am thinking I may even do my best to re-weave the fabric in the places where the holes are worst. I do enjoy darning socks, I bet I would enjoy the meditation of fixing the holes if I could find a time when I didn’t feel guilty about sitting still.

I did wrap myself up in the quilt when I got home. I allowed myself to imagine myself being hugged by my beloved Gramma Illa. She was an extrordinary woman. I actually knew her better than my other relatives, because she did live in Michigan the last few years of her life, when I was a young adult.

I never heard her say one bad thing about anyone. She always looked at the bright side, although she wasn’t unrealistic about life. She had some hard times… her mother and younger sister died when she was 6 years old. She was widowed at the age of 64 and that was after she nursed her husband, my grandfather, back to health after a stroke and three smaller heart attacks.

She had some fun times, as well, as a young woman in the early 1920’s who went to college (three schools in three different states, actually) and enjoyed that very much. She was very beautiful. And she had many suitors, but only my Grandfather, who she met after she started working as a teacher, was acceptable to Gramma’s grandmother who had raised her. Once her grandmother approved, she felt able to marry. So she, an “old maid,” finally married at the age of 28. She had the last of her four children, three days before her 40th birthday. I could write a book on Gramma and maybe I will write more later. She was fascinating, as well as warm and loving.

I am absolutely thrilled with my quilt! I hope to find some time to work on it, but it will be a while before that happens. Let’s hope I can do it before the coldest part of the winter is upon us.

3 Responses to “Gramma Illa’s Quilt”

  1. Charlotte Says:

    The story of your Gramma’s quilt brought back memories of the “comforters” my grandmother used to make. She would collect worn men’s suits and cut them up into sizeable (maybe 6-8 inches?) squares. These were then sewn together to make the top. I don’t remember what the back was. These were not quilted by were tied with yarn. I don’t know what the stuffing was either but they were heavy and one or two of those on a bed meant a small child would find it difficult to turn over. I don’t know what happened to those “comforters.” As far as I know, they no longer exist.

  2. Donna Says:

    What a pretty quilt. I wish I knew how to quilt. Some day perhaps. For now in between knitting garments I make afghans for family members. All hand mades are memory makers. All those socks you have passed on through the years will be too. Thanks for sharing.

    Donna.

  3. Emma Says:

    What a lovely post ! Thank you for sharing stories about your family.

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