Op-ed: Grandma’s quilts

By Bill Shepard

With night temperatures dipping into the mid-20s, and daytime temperatures not much better, my mind took a dip also.
It carried me back to a time and a place where a party was taking place … a quilting party!
Long before I had heard of central heating systems in homes and electric blankets covering beds, Grandma’s quilts made a big difference on cold winter nights.
Growing up in Darlington during the ’20s and ’30s was an experience of many memories. Times were as hard as nails; jobs were scarce and came with little pay.
A job at the big Cotton Mill meant one had credit at the Company Store and a house to live in. Not bad for the times.
Out of those times came some of the most beautiful memories of my life, and they have remained through the long years since. Some I have shared before. This one is about Grandma Shepard’s quilts.
For some, quilting may be a hobby. For Grandma it was a necessity. On cold winter nights, when the fire had gone out in the fireplace, Grandma’s quilts made the difference between sleeping warm or cold. Underneath the quilts, little bodies would be as “snug as a bug” in a rug.
Grandma’s children and grandchildren like to tell their own stories about Grandma’s quilts when they are together. Each time the stories are told they get longer and more exaggerated, but they are always reminiscent of a time long past, when sleeping at Grandma’s house on a cold winter’s night was an experience that would last a lifetime.
During the ’20s and ’30s, quilting was a common event that took place at someone’s house on the village where this writer grew up. Long before electric blankets and central heating systems, quilts made the difference between sleeping warm or cold.
Quilts in those early times were not designed with beautiful patterns as some we see today, but with scraps left over from clothing made for the family’s needs.
When enough scraps of cloth had been saved, word would go out to nearby neighbors that a quilting would be in progress. This would usually take place on long summer evenings or early fall.
Supper being ended, the womenfolk would gather at the designated place and take their seats around the large quilting frames. The frames used at our house had been made by my dad, using strips of pine wood from the sawmill. They were crudely built but served the same purpose as the store-bought ones.
Usually a room in the house had to be vacated as a place to put the frames. When everything was ready the quilting would begin.
It would take several days to finish the quilt as the work was done only after the regular workday had ended. The long summer evening provided hours of quilting time and made for some of the fondest memories of my childhood years.
The quilts that were made served more than just Grandma and her children; generations to come would feel their warmth also. While the women sat at the quilting frames sewing the stitches back and forth, the menfolk sat on the front porch talking about whatever came to mind.
Mostly the talk was about the happenings at the big Cotton Mill where everyone worked.
Topics ranged from how hard the work was to who was hired or fired that day to what the new “boss man” was like. If it didn’t happen on the village or at the big mill, we didn’t know about it.
There were only a few radios, no telephones, and only a few, if any, read the newspapers. Television was a word that had not yet entered our vocabulary.
I liked it best when the men shared ghost stories that they declared were true.
The womenfolk talked about their children, what was happening at school, who had cut their foot, stumped their toe, or had the “sore eyes.” If a new neighbor had moved to the village, that could lend itself to talk.
Revival at the little church nearby was always a good conversation piece. While all the talk was going on, the boys would gather underneath the quilt and play marbles. Playing marbles on a wooden floor was not the best way to do it, but it was better than not playing at all.
After several nights, the quilt would be finished and the quilting frames taken down and stored for later use. The finished quilt would take its place alongside those made in previous years.
I could lie in bed on a cold winter’s night and reflect on the days gone by; the ghost stories would often come back to haunt me.
I could see in the quilt covering me reminders of Mama’s aprons, my sister’s skirts, and the shirts that I and my brothers wore, and some that my neighbors wore.
A quilt would seldom wear out; they just got older and older, sometimes thinner and thinner. When that would happen, instead of discarding them, they would be covered again with a new top and lining, providing continued use for years to come.
Stored inside the dark closet all summer long, the quilts would create a musky smell that would never go away. In the case of Grandma’s quilts, they outlasted her, and when she died her quilts were divided among her children and grandchildren.
Today they are a memory, and that memory really comes alive when temperatures dip to the freezing point!

Author: Rachel Howell

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