Preserving Memories: Quilts and Christmas

Preserving Memories: Quilts and Christmas

Creative ways to save and share your family history.

Safe Keeping: Heirloom Quilts

They’ve been keeping Americans warm for centuries, and you likely have at least one or two in your own home. Whether they’re prize-winning showpieces or well-loved comforters, quilts serve as records of our lives — and the lives of our ancestors. If you’re lucky enough to have one a relative stitched, keep your heirloom in tiptop shape — and save its history — by following these sew-savvy hints:

Make a clean sweep. If your quilt is more than 50 years old, it should be cleaned only by a professional conservator, if at all. You can easily clean a newer quilt with a vacuum cleaner. Lay the quilt out on a flat surface, and put a nylon stocking over the end of the nozzle or use a soft brush attachment before vacuuming. You also can air the quilt outside on an overcast day to remove dirt and odors. Wash your quilt only if all dyes are colorfast and it doesn’t have any inked signatures. Never launder silk, wool, velvet or hand-painted quilts.

Just encase. You can store your quilt in an acid-free box, wrap it in a piece of washed, unbleached muslin or fold it in a pillowcase. Never keep it in a cardboard box or plastic bag. If you want to store it in a wooden drawer, first paint the inside with polyurethane varnish and after it’s dried, line the drawer with acid-free paper, cotton sheets or muslin. Refold the quilts a few times a year to avoid permanent creases. Smaller quilts can be rolled around a cardboard tube wrapped in acid-free paper.

Go to bed. The best way to store — and display — a quilt is on an unused bed. Keeping pets and sun off the quilt will extend the lifetime of the fabric. Don’t banish your quilt to the attic or basement; opt instead for a low-humidity, constant-temperature area. Periodically rest hanging quilts to reduce stress on the fabric. Never nail or tack a quilt to the wall, and don’t pin anything to your heirloom — the pins can leave rust marks.

Fabricate a date. A quilt’s fabric can reveal a lot about its age. The earliest quilts were made of homespun cloth; print materials became common after 1820. Nineteenth-century quilts used cotton — calico, gingham, muslin and solids — along with wool and challis. Frontier women employed muslin, sacking and sample swatches. Victorian-era quilters incorporated expensive fabrics such as silk, taffeta, velvet and satin. By the mid-1800s, women were buying fabric specifically for quilting. During the crazy-quilt mania of the 1880s, manufacturers started selling bundled scraps. Some turn-of-the-century quilts incorporated feed or sugar sacks and even silk swatches that were put in cigarette packs to encourage women to smoke.

Shape up. Since certain patterns were common to specific groups, eras and regions, a quilt’s design might give you clues about its creator. All Pennsylvania Amish quilts, for example, feature straight-edge geometric shapes. Tiny patchwork pieces demonstrate frugality and patience — quilting was an early form of recycling, after all. When using design motifs to estimate a quilt’s age, keep in mind that the fabrics might be a decade or two older than the quilt itself.

Textile Trivia

  • The earliest-known American pieced quilt dates to 1704; it was made by Sarah Sedgwick Leverett and her daughter in Massachusetts.
  • Quilting bees became an established tradition by 1820.
  • The availability of indelible ink after 1840 led quilters to add signatures and inscriptions to their creations.
  • Tradition dictated that a young woman should complete 12 quilt tops before her engagement.
  • Susan B. Anthony reputedly made her first speech about suffrage at a Cleveland quilting bee.
  • After a late 19th-century decline, quilting regained popularity in the lean times after the 1929 stock market crash.


Customary Celebrations

Think your holidays will be hectic? Early New Yorkers used to advertise in the newspaper when they would be receiving guests. Predictably, this practice ended when complete strangers began showing up for a free dinner.

As the weather gets colder, it’s the perfect time to explore some of your ancestors’ holiday traditions — you can incorporate them into your own celebrations or simply find fun tidbits to share at family gatherings.

Those with Mexican heritage, for example, could draw decorative inspiration from Oaxaca’s Noche de Rábanos (“Night of the Radishes”). Thousands of people flock to the city’s center every Dec. 23 to see the giant root vegetables carved to depict scenes of the Nativity and Mexican life.

When things heat up in the kitchen, think of Poland, where the main course on Christmas — carp — traditionally is kept swimming in the bathtub or a bucket of water until dinnertime.

Revive your own ancestors’ traditions with these great references, which you’ll find at your local library or bookstore:

The World Encyclopedia of Christmas by Gerry Bowler (McClelland & Stewart)

Christmas in America: A History by Penne L. Restad (Oxford University Press)

The Folklore of American Holidays, 4th edition, edited by Hennig Cohen and Tristram Potter Coffin (Thomson Gale)

Type Tip

With all the fancy fonts available these days, laying out a scrapbook page can feel like being a kid in a candy store: You want some of everything. But if you limit yourself to two or three fonts per page, you’ll avoid spoiling your dinner and keep the layout classy and uncluttered. Instead, use italic or boldface type to add emphasis.

From the November 2007 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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