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Patchwork pieces of lives

The author's scrap collection. (Photo by Linda LeGarde Grover)

At a museum a few years ago I saw a number of antique quilts on display. Next to each was a little card with information about the pattern used, such as Wedding Ring, Bird in the Window, Log Cabin, etc. One quilt that really caught my eye wasn’t made in a pattern at all. It was called a Crazy Quilt, which meant that it made from pieces of scrap material fitted together to make the most of the fabric. That quilt was more than 100 years old.

I thought that the crazy quilt was the most beautiful of all and got as close as I could to see the shapes and colors of the pieces. There were hundreds, some only the size of a deck of cards, fitted and sewn together and then quilted by hand. Each piece was a scrap of material left over from another sewing project or cut from worn-out clothing. I wondered about the lives of the people who had worn those clothes and the women who cut and saved them to make something useful and beautiful ... for whom? What would those women think if they could see their crazy quilt displayed in a museum, so carefully preserved and displayed?

That crazy quilt was really a work of art in the same way that people’s lives are. We can’t see this while it is happening, but our lives, pieced together, are really like beautiful crazy (in many senses of the word!) quilts.

My great-grandmother used to make quilts that were a simple design of squares anchored to the backing with a yarn knot tied in the center of each square. She cut these from her family’s worn-out clothing (which she probably had sewn, herself, in the first place) and sometimes from other people’s worn out clothing, bought as scrap from the Used-a-Bit store downtown. Some of her quilts were of cotton fabric: flowery calico, men’s striped shirts. Some, which were very warm, were made from the wool of women’s skirts and men’s pants. She used the some of the lightest and smallest pieces of fabric to sew clothes for the dolls she made. A talented re-purpose-er, I don’t think she ever threw much away.

Although I am not a really skilled seamstress like my great-grandmother I like to sew, usually easy, fun designs that can be made of cotton: aprons or sometimes dresses or baby clothes. Unlike her, I buy most of my fabric new and I end up with scraps that I save for other projects. My stash gets to be quite a pile to choose from when I feel like sewing. The quilts I make are usually for babies, the squares assorted colors and prints of cotton fabric. They are sturdy and easy to wash, which works well for a quilt that can be drooled on, spilled on and dragged around on the floor once the baby gets a little bigger.

My baby quilts, like my great-grandmother’s, are simple in design, but they are cute and functional and people like receiving them as gifts. As I make them I think how each patch is from something else that I made for someone, I remember each as I cut and piece. The latest quilt I made was for a darling baby girl, the granddaughter of two lady friends of mine. I had material left over from aprons that I had made for them, and put them into this quilt. I picture the little abinoojiiyens getting big enough to lift her head, lying on her tummy looking at and touching the squares of colored fabric that someday she will see are just like her grandmothers’ aprons. I hope that this baby girl will give the quilt a lot of fun living and wear it out.

But you never know, perhaps it could end up in a museum 100 years from now, to be wondered about!

Linda Legarde Grover

Monthly columnist Linda LeGarde Grover is a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, an award-winning writer and a member of the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.

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