My Mother’s Quilts: Devotions of Love, Legacy, Family, and Faith
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Faith, Hope, and Love in Every Block
When my mother and I sat down to make plans for her funeral, we decided to use one of her quilts on the casket instead of a blanket of flowers. She chose her Butterfly Quilt, which featured her own mother’s handkerchiefs. My grandmother carried a handkerchief everywhere she went, especially to church. Being too poor to purchase such a luxury, my grandmother made her own from any available fabric. She’d add embroidery or tat lace for the edges, although some bold prints and colors needed little more than hemming. When my grandmother died, Mother took those treasured squares and transformed each into a lovely butterfly, centered on a twelve-inch quilt block. The quilted stitches around the outside of the quilt formed their own line of precise butterflies.
It was one of my mother’s most cherished quilts. It stayed on display in her living room until she went into an assisted living facility. When I’d visit her home, our conversation would frequently drift to the quilt, and she’d share the story of one of the handkerchiefs—what the fabric had been originally or a special time she remembered my grandmother carrying a particular one. That spurred us to talk about the other quilts that she owned.
My mother was a master quilter. It was her passion and great love. She belonged to a local guild and took trips to quilt shows. She read constantly about them, and she sought out the history of patterns and fabrics. Although Mother pieced most of her quilts on a machine, every quilted stitch was by hand, and she enjoyed finding different stitching stencils to add pizzazz to her work.
But Mother also owned a number of quilts that had been passed to her from her mother, grandmother, and assorted friends and relatives. She even owned a quilt pieced in North Carolina during the 1830s and transported over the mountains into Alabama when our family migrated west. Once a brilliant red and green Carolina Lily pattern, the antebellum quilt survived the Civil War by being buried in a barn. The years underground left it a faded brown and rusty orange, but it was still intact, if fragile, after almost 180 years. After much discussion with my brother and me, Mother donated it to her hometown museum.
It weighed on her, however, that the story of the Carolina Lily quilt, and all the others, would soon be forgotten. No one but her knew their tales. So she stitched a white fabric tag to the back of most of the quilts, on which she wrote as much as she dared about the quilt’s origins. And she began to share with me the stories behind each one, accounts that not only described the beginning of a quilt but the ongoing legacy of the seamstresses in her life—their faith, their hopes for the future, their dreams, their adventures.
When the time finally came to use the Butterfly Quilt on her casket, all those stories came rushing back to me as people asked me, repeatedly, about the quilt. I used it in her eulogy, explaining how important to her it had been to not lose the fabric of my grandmother’s life and legacy. How important it was to preserve those elements of character and grace far beyond her time here on earth. After Mother’s funeral, the quilt became the center of attention, as family gathered around. Some of the cousins there I had not seen in decades, but we were suddenly united by a quilt—what it stood for and what it meant to all of us.
It was a reminder that all families have such treasure imbedded in their weaving, and I knew I had to share the lessons I’d learned from my mother’s stories of seamstresses past and present. Quilts and other needlework—once necessities—now make up our legacy of faith and hope. Whether they’re like a 180-year-old Carolina Lily Quilt, 75-year-old handkerchiefs, or a 25-year-old Butterfly Quilt, the stitches of our family are very much like our faith: they bind us, comfort us, and help us share the foundations of the past with the generations of the future.
A Faded Pattern
She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands.
—Proverbs 31:13 NIV
“The fabric definitely dates to the 1830s or 1840s.”
I watched my cousin Becky carefully run white-gloved hands over the vintage quilt, comparing the cloth to examples in one of her books on the history of fabrics. The faded quilt, tattered and worn around the edges, lay spread over the museum table. It doesn’t look like much, compared to modern quilts, with their brilliant colors and innovative patterns. The colors of the familiar Carolina Lily pattern have paled from bright red and green to orange and brown. The white background is now umber. It is smaller than recently made quilts, built for narrow mattresses of corn shucks or straw.
Becky paused over one square. “Here.” She pointed. “That one only appeared in that decade. And the wool batting puts it pre-Civil War.” The handwoven back places its construction in North Carolina, confirming the family stories of the young couple who trusted God with an unknown future on the other side of the mountains. It even comes with its own legend: in order to keep it from being confiscated by marauders and soldiers alike, it spent the Civil War buried in a trunk in the barn, along with some other valuables.
After the war, it wasn’t used much, but it passed down from one woman to the next. My grandmother would take it out each year, air it over an outside clothesline, then lovingly pack it away, sharing the age-old tales about the quilt as she did so. Stories of love, faith, and sacrifice, such as most families have dotting their past.
By the time my mother received it, it had deteriorated too much for restoration, so the family made the decision to wrap it in acid-free paper, in an equally acid-free box, and donate it to the St. Clair County (Alabama) Museum and Archives, where it’s displayed occasionally, a marker of the area’s history.
But it’s far more than that. It’s a faded symbol of something that never fades. While we cherish the Carolina Lily because it’s a legacy of our handicraft, it’s also a reminder that faith and family, and a belief that God will take care of us, endures in the same way: passed down to the next generation.
Father, you have blessed your children across thousands of years and shown them how to disciple and love their own. Guide me as I pass my faith to a new generation of believers. Amen.