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Column #11

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. 


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Archived blogs:

Column 149: Rosie’s Redwork
Column 148: The Quilt of Belonging
Column 147: Kanthas—The Quilts of Bangladesh
Column 146: Patterns
Column 145: Suzy on Carolyn Mazloomi's Groundbreaking Quilt Exhibit
Column 144: Texas Community Marks Juneteenth Sesquicentennial with History Quilts
Column 143: Maya Embroidered Patchwork
Column 142: Huipil Patchwork Quilts
Column 141: Tom Korn’s Military Medal Quilts
Column 140: The Return of Double Knits!
Column 139: Passage Quilts
Column 138: Home of the Brave Quilts
Column 137: The Story of Fabric Yo-Yos
Column 136: Christmas in July
Column 135: Trifles
Column 134: Deaf Initiatives—Communicating Through Quilts
Column 133: My Betty Boop Quilt
Column 132: Maura Grace Ambrose
Column 131: All You Need Is Love
Column 130: Chicken Linens
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

See other archived columns here


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