Something from Nothing
Churn Dash wall quilt made from feed sacks by Kathleen McCrady.
Photo by Alex Labry.
This quilt featuring pieces of old clothes and woolen stockings was believed to have been made in Pennsylvania sometime between 1930 and 1945. Its maker is unknown.
Photo courtesy of the International Quilt Study Center & Museum, quiltstudy.org
African-American quilter Catherine Somerville of Aliceville, Alabama made this "britchy" quilt sometime between 1930 and 1950. It is made from pieces of old work clothes. In Texas, this sort of quilt is called a "britches" quilt, whereas the term "britchy" quilt is used in other parts of the country.
Photo courtesy of the International Quilt Study Center & Museum, quiltstudy.org
Not long ago, I made my daughter go through her closet and pull out all of the clothes she had outgrown or no longer wore. When she finished, there was a sizeable pile of garments on the floor. As I sorted through the castoffs, I made further piles of things to be handed down to smaller and younger friends and relatives, things to go to Goodwill, and things that were too worn out to go anywhere but the trash. While mentally patting myself on the back for my efforts to recycle the clothing, it occurred to me that women of earlier times would have looked at these outgrown wearables quite differently.
For one thing, there would not have been nearly so many clothes to deal with. They would have likely been passed down more than once already, so everything would have seen more wear and tear. The decision as to what to do with the clothes would have been simplified as well. Was there another family member who could wear them? If not, what could be salvaged for the scrap bag and used to make a quilt?
Not that that long ago, the final destination of used clothing was often a quilt. Specifically in some African-American families, shirttail, dress-tail, dress-stomach, necktie, and workclothes quilts were the product of thrifty quilters who let nothing go to waste. Britches quilts were made from the parts of pants that had not worn out. I once asked an African-American quilter by the name of Matilda Brown whether she had ever made a britches quilt. “Lord, child!” she said. “That’s the wrong question to be asking me. You should ask, how many britches have I made. And then I’d say, ‘I don’t know.’ I’m 82 years old and I’ve lost count.” I was also told about baby quilts crafted using the tops of men’s heavy work socks after the “feet” had worn out.
Of course, until just a few decades ago, most clothing was homemade and leftover fabric scraps were the primary source for quilts of all kinds. Even the smallest bits of cloth could be saved and put to good use, as evidenced in the many string quilts that were made. String quilts are an excellent example of creating something from just about nothing. Leftover scraps of fabric sewn randomly onto a foundation typically made from muslin—provided the ultimate in recycling, not to mention some of the most visually appealing quilts imaginable.
Fabric from used clothing was not the only kind salvaged to make quilts. Sackcloth of all sorts—feed, sugar, flour—was a primary source of quilting materials. My Aunt Neva chose what brand of those particular things she was going to buy based on the color and pattern of the fabric used to make the sack. I remember that one time she got a bag of flour that had weevils in it, but she didn’t take it back to the store because she really liked the sack. Tobacco sack quilts were popular during the Depression. These little bags were made from unbleached muslin, and once their string tie was removed and the side seam ripped out, the resulting rectangle was the perfect size to stitch back together into a quilt.
My family calls me the Recycling Queen, because I’m always harping on the need to recycle everything possible, and I drive them all to distraction by sorting, stacking, and saving all sorts of paper, glass, and plastic. I wash and reuse plastic bags and aluminum foil, and I even keep a string ball. But when I think about that pile of my daughter’s clothes and what my grandmothers would have done with them, I know I’m out of my league. Our quilting forebears were the ultimate recyclers.
Click here to return to top.
Column 129: The Quilted Chuppah
Column 128: Patchwork Around the World: Yoruba Dance Costumes
Column 127: The Bowers Co-Op Quilts
Column 126: Fon Appliqué and Haitian Voodoo Flags
Column 125: The Quilt Garden at The North Carolina Arboretum
Column 124: Harriet Powers and Handful’s Mauma
Column 123: Quilters de Mexico
Column 122: An Appliquéd Surprise
Column 121: Matisse’s Fabric Stash
Column 120: Soogan—The Cowboy’s Quilt
Column 119: The Ron Swanson Quilt
Column 118: HClarkdale, Georgia—A Thread of History
Column 117: How WWI Changed the Color of Quilts in the United States
Column 116: Wagga—The Bushman’s Quilt
Column 115: All in the Family
Column 114: The Alabama State Quilt
Column 113: Balloon Quilts of Albuquerque
Column 112: The Family That Quilts Together, Stays Together
Column 111: Two Rivers, Three Sisters
Column 110: Quilters Helping Quilters
Column 109: Community Cookbooks and Fundraiser Quilts—Parallel Histories
Column 108: Quilting to Freedom
Column 107: National Quilting Day
Column 106: The Airing of the Quilts
Column 105: A Call for a National Juneteenth Commemorative Quilt
Column 104: Dominoes
Column 103: 1936 Texas Centennial Bluebonnet Quilt
Column 102: Helen Blackstone, A Texas Quilter
Column 101: Montana CattleWomen Anniversary Brand Quilt
Column 100: 100th Suzy's Fancy Column!
Column 99: Montana Stockgrowers Anniversary Brand Quilt
Column 98: The Tobacco Sack Connection
Column 97: Meet the Sisters Who Are State Fair Quilting Queens
Column 96: The connection between fairs and quilts.
Column 95: Her Mother Pieced Quilts
Column 94: Rebecca Barker’s Quiltscapes
Column 93: The Thread and Thimble Club Mystery
Column 92: The Ballerina Quilter
Column 91: Grandmother's Flower Garden Comes Alive at Texas Quilt Museum
Column 90: Leitmotif for a Lifelong Love Affair
Column 89: Quilting in The Bahamas
Column 88: Joan of Arc: A Quilter's Inspiration
Column 87: Home Demonstration Clubs and Quilting
Column 86: Linzi Upton and the Quilted Yurt
Column 85: A Bounty of Quilts
Column 84: Desert Trader
Column 83: Quilts and the Women’s Liberation Movement
Column 82: Replicating the Past: Reproduction Fabrics for Today’s Quilts
Column 81: Why So Many Quilt Shops in Bozeman, Montana?
Column 80: Southeastern Quilt and Textile Museum
Column 79: 54 Tons of Quilt
Column 78: Ollie Steele Burden’s Quilt Blocks
Column 77: Quilting with AMD
Column 76: Maverick Quilts and Cowgirls
Column 75: The Modern Quilt Guild—Cyberculture Quilting Ramps Up
Column 74: The Membership Quilt—Czech Quilting in Texas
Column 73: Maximum Security Quilts
Column 72: Author: Terri Thayer
Column 71: The Christmas Quilt
Column 70: New Mexico Centennial Quilt
Column 69: Scrub Quilts
Column 68: “Think Pink” Quilt Raises Funds for Rare Cancer Research
Column 67: Righting Old Wrongs.
Column 66: 100 Years, 100 Quilts - More on the Arizona Centennial.
Column 65: Arizona Centennial Quilt Project
Column 64: Capt. John Files Tom’s Family Tree
Column 63: The Fat Quarters
Column 62: Quilt Fiction Author: Clare O’Donohue
Column 61: Louisiana Bicentennial Quilt
Column 60: The Camo Quilt Project.
Column 59: Thread Wit
Column 58: Ralli Quilts
Column 57: Preschool Quilters
Column 56: The Story Quilt
Column 55: Red and Green Quilts
Column 54: On the Trail
Column 53: Quilt Trail Gathering
Column 52: True Confessions: First Quilt
Column 51: Quilted Pages
Column 50: Doll Quilts
Column 49: More Than a Quilt Shop
Column 48: Las Colchas of the Texas-Mexico Border
Column 47: Literary Gifts
Column 46: A Different Way of Seeing
Column 45: Sampling
Column 44: Hen and Chicks
Column 43: A Star Studied Event
Column 42: Shoo Fly Pattern
Column 41: Awareness Quilts
Column 40: Tivaevae
Column 39: UnOILed UnspOILed Coast Quilt Project
Column 38: Katrina Recovery Quilts
Column 37: Quilted Vermont
Column 36: The Labyrinth Quilt—A Meditative Endeavor
See other archived columns here