Several months ago, I received an unexpected package in the mail from my cousin Kirby’s wife, Jonnie. It was a shoebox. Inside were scrap fabrics dating from the 1930s to the 1960s cut into squares and triangles. At the bottom of the box was a finished quilt block, and pinned to it with a straight pin were the block’s templates, cut from the cardboard backing of a Big Chief writing tablet.
I recognized few of the fabrics, but I definitely identified the way those templates were pinned to a sample block as being my Aunt Neva’s doing. My brother and I lived with Aunt Neva, Uncle Owen, and Kirby when we were little, and it was Aunt Neva who instilled in me a love of quilts and quilting.
When Aunt Neva found a quilt pattern she especially liked, she would make templates for the required pieces out of thin cardboard. Then she would construct a sample block. Sometimes, she would go on to make a whole quilt of that pattern, but more often she just made the sample, attached the cardboard templates to it with a straight pin after writing the pattern name on each template, and put it all in a box.
I wish now that I had thought to ask her about that while she was still alive. Did making the sample block cause her to decide she didn’t like the pattern well enough to make a whole quilt out of it? Was she waiting until she got enough of the right sort of fabrics? Were the demands of a farm wife with livestock, a teenager, and small kids to care for such that she didn’t have time to take on another quilt top? Perhaps none of those things—maybe she just liked making the samples.
I have a wonderful memory of an afternoon long ago when Aunt Neva and I got out all the samples and laid them out on her bed. We moved them around, having fun trying to see what looked good next to what. Side by side, the different patterns were a jumble of sizes and a rather eye-popping mixture of fabric colors. But taken together and viewed as a whole, they formed something that the two of us found exciting.
In hip hop music, “sampling” refers to taking a portion of one piece of recorded music and using it in a different way in another recording, thereby making an entirely new song. That’s what Aunt Neva’s sample blocks were like to me. There are times when a sample is all you need.
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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