by Suzanne Labry
Cowbelles Brand Quilts
Back in 1939 in Douglas, Arizona when 16 ranch wives decided to form a club “to promote family and social relations between cattle people and to cooperate for the best interests of our [beef] industry, our community, and our country,” none of the women would have dreamed that their informal group would spread throughout Arizona and 29 states, eventually leading to the creation of the American National Cattle Women’s Association.
The 2015 Cowbelles quilt, held by members of the quilt committee. Left to right Paula Neal, Mary Ellen McComb, Ann Neely, and Joylene Higgins. Photo courtesy of Paula Neal.
The women called themselves “Cowbelles,” and although at first the group was purely social, it quickly evolved into a service organization, promoting western heritage and beef production through education and community interaction.
One of their first service projects was making quilts for the Arizona Children’s Home in Tucson. In the 77 years that have passed since the first Cowbelle Club was started, making quilts—although certainly not the main focus of the group—has become a staple item in the long list of activities carried out by scores of Cowbelle clubs all across the United States. Not surprisingly, many of the quilts made by Cowbelle club members feature cattle brands.
This is certainly the case with the Southwestern Cowbelles of Cortez, Colorado, in the scenic area noted for Mesa Verde National Park, Monument Valley, and the Four Corners. This group has been making cattle brand quilts for 51 years.
During that time, the Southwestern Cowbelles have established a basic routine for how their quilts are made. Each quilt consists of 42, 12-inch quilt blocks. Forty-one blocks depict the cattle brands of Southwestern Cowbelle members, and one block features the Southwestern Cowbelle logo. Brands may be added or removed when new ranches start or old ones leave the area (a practice which, through the years, has provided a unique record of the local industry), but for the most part, the quilts remain the same each year.
“Only legal, registered brands are allowed on a quilt,” says Paula Neal, one of four members of the quilt committee. “We make at least two tops each year. One is given away by drawing at our Christmas Party in December to a Cowbelle member who has not already received a quilt or quilt top. The other quilt is raffled off to the public at the annual Southwestern Livestock Association annual meeting in February. When one of our members turns 60 years old, she is given a quilt top as long as she has a legal registered brand, has made quilt blocks for at least five years, and has not previously received a quilt or quilt top.”
Brand designs are rendered in brown fabric appliquéd with a satin stitch on a white ground. The quilt is set together with dark brown and machine quilted by committee member Ann Neely. Tradition and heritage are important elements of the brand quilts. “I guess some might think it would get boring having the same thing all the time, but it’s an important part of local history,” Neal continues. “People really look forward to the quilt every year and for their chance to win.”
Neal, who learned to sew on a treadle sewing machine when she was four years old, has been around quilts all her life. “I still remember the first time I saw somebody buy a blanket,” she laughs. “We always slept under quilts.” When asked what working on the annual Cowbelles brand quilt means to her, she paused and thought a moment before replying: “Livestock and ranching are my life—and I love to sew!”