A few weeks ago, someone from Scandinavia asked me the question, “What is a quilt?”
First, I was a bit stunned because of all the locations in the world, people in the far north need quilts more than people in warmer latitudes – so the question itself surprised me. However, when I visited Scandinavia, I realized that quilts are not nearly as popular there as in the US. There are few if any quilt shops – and apparently, judging from that question, few quilts.
Then, I began to answer the question technically. A quilt is three layers of textiles, sandwiched together.
- The bottom layer is typically utilitarian, one piece of fabric that you won’t see became it’s face down, or against you.
- The middle layer is something called quilt batting which is most often cotton or wool, warm and insulating, which also serves to give the top a kind of puffy effect – filling out the wrinkles a bit.
- The top is often multiple coordinating fabrics pieced in a pattern, or artistic.
A quilt is not only warm and wonderful, but it’s beautiful too.
You can see the 3-layer sandwich and the quilting in the example below of a quilt edge waiting to be trimmed and a binding applied to secure the three layers together so it looks attractive and the layers don’t ravel.
The back is larger than the front and waiting to be trimmed. The batting is the white middle layer.
The quilt top itself is generally smaller pieces of fabric sewn together to create either a pattern or some type of art work as illustrated by the same quilt’s corner, shown below.
All three layers are then quilted, sewn together in a pattern which serves to hold the quilt together and is decorative at the same time. You can see the swirl pattern on this quilt which is the quilting.
Quilts serve as blankets on beds, personal napping companions, as art, or as utilitarian items like table runners, clothes and much more. I keep one in my car for picnics, emergencies and naps. My quilts have been used for almost everything over the years including animal rescue.
Quilts can be self-expressive clothing too.
In this photo, I’m wearing a quilted vest with a matching laptop bag. Actually, that bag’s large enough to carry half of what I own! I might have been a little bit overexuberant when I made the bag.
I dug around on my phone and showed this next example of a quilt to the person who asked. I’m particularly fond of this quilt, made out of scraps of fabric, most of which I hand-dyed myself using a marbling technique. Translated, this means I made both the fabric, except the solid red and dark grey, designed the pattern and then made the quilt. I love it because it’s bright and cheery and holds many good memories.
This is what happens when life gives you scraps and you are losing your marbles.
My friend told me it made him dizzy. Well, this quilt, named “Losing Your Marbles,” was quite complex and kind of made me dizzy in a different way too.
Sigh. I think I failed to convert or even convince him.
A Quilt is Not About Fabric
Later, as I thought more about the question, I realized that while I gave my friend a technically accurate answer, quilts are really much more and I failed to convey the beauty behind quilts which has little to do with the fabric or pattern.
Quilts are love. Pure and simple. You don’t make a quilt for someone you don’t love.
Yes, there are different kinds of love, but quilts are the quintessential expression of love and caring for others.
Quilters Create Quilts, and Quilts Define Quilters
As with our ancestors, what we do defines who we are. Who we are also determines what we do. My great-grandmother who died in 1949, more than anything else, is remembered for being a quilter who graced everyone in the family with one or more lovingly hand-made quilts that have now been passed on for 3 going on 4 generations.
I just might have picked up the quilting bug from my great-grandmother, Nora Kirsch Lore (1866-1949).
Nora was a quilter extraordinaire, representing the State of Indiana in the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair with her Climbing Vine quilt, above. Long after her death, Mom, me and my daughter posed in front of her quilt at a quilt show.
Nora created stunning quilts that took years to complete as well as utilitarian quilts, like the pink and green hand-quilted Depression Era quilt that graced Mom’s bed for years.
Nora made what is now known as “The Handerchief Quilt.” This old blue “Drunkard’s Path” quilt was so loved and worn that I had to find a way to salvage it. There were literally holes, in several places, but my kids loved it so much they cried at the prospect of using it to make something else.
“You can’t cut Mawmaw’s quilt, ” they sobbed. They had know it their entire lives as their grandmother’s quilt that they used to snuggle underneath with her. Little did they know it was her grandmother, Nora, that made the quilt they so loved.
Regardless, I certainly couldn’t cut sometime that priceless to my children so a solution had to be found. I dug around in Mom’s “heritage drawer” and took some of my grandmother, Edith’s handkerchiefs to repair her mother, Nora’s quilt.
Now this quilt embodies 5 generations – Nora, the original quilter, her daugher Edith’s handkerchiefs, then Barbara, my mother snuggled under it with her grandchildren, and I restoring the quilt to something useable. Of course, then my kids insisted I immediately put it away for safekeeping! Someday it will belong to one of them.
And so it goes, quilts embody love, being a virtual hug from the quilter every time you wrap the quilt around you. Quilts are a method of passing love on generation after generation.
Quilts are wonderful family heirlooms, even tattered old ones – but that’s not all. They are also for family-of-heart.
I was reminded of that, in spades, the day my second-mother of sorts passed away. I don’t remember ever not knowing Mrs. Larsen – Louise as I came to call her as an adult. She was our neighbor before I started school, my friends’ mother, my Girl Scout leader and then my friend. She inspired me, she disciplined me when I needed it, and sometimes when I didn’t – she was my mentor and cheerleader. She wasn’t always right, but she always cared. She was sometimes at odds with my quite conservative and strict mother, so the Larsen household was a safehaven of sorts for the neighborhood kids.
After high school, I moved away but kept in touch with Louise for decades through her family and sporadic visits. I attended her daughter’s funeral, a horribly sad day when we buried one of my best friends. Years later, I went home for another daughter’s wedding and visited with Louise when I managed to get back home, which wasn’t often. My mother moved, then died, so there was no reason to go back anymore, but I manage a last visit about a decade ago and spent time with Louise.
A few years later, Louise began to slip into dementia and moved, albeit reluctantly, in with her daughter in a distant state. Nothing was familiar and Louise was not happy.
I made a quilt for her, quickly so she could have it immediately. I included fabrics I thought she would enjoy and wrote a letter tucked into the box with the quilt saying that the floral fabrics represented the lives of the girls in her scout troop. We had bloomed from the seeds she had planted. Her daughters told me that she couldn’t remember much from the present, but she could name each of “her girls” from the Scout troop. She would reminisce and wonder what happened to each of us.
Eventually, Louise entered hospice. I knew the end was near and wished her GodSpeed through this final trial.
Louise passed over, released from the terrible burden of dementia, comforted by her quilt over these increasingly difficult four+ years as dementia consumed her.
I hope when she could no longer remember who I was, or who family was, that the flowers in the quilt still brought her solace in some deeply visceral way – even though she could not remember why. I hope she felt love when someone tucked her in or covered her with the quilt.
I hope the quilt enveloped her and helped her feel safe when no one was present. I hope the quilt served its purpose, embraced her and shepherded her to the next world.
A few hours after her passing, her daughter sent this:
She was covered with the quilt you made for her for the past week. You were with her the entire time.
I sobbed. The quilt, send on a mission of comfort and love had worked its magic.
That is what a quilt is.
I took the quilt home. It’s a family heirloom now. Thank you.
This, my friends, is why we quilt.
And now, I hope the quilt brings comfort and warm memories to her family members for many years to come.
Quilts Document Lives
As a genealogist, I’ve come to realize that quilts often document life’s journey – both for recipients as well as the quilter. You might want to read about Sarah’s Quilt, found in her estate inventory, as an example. In fact, throughout this article, all of the links tell stories that are important parts of the lives of quilters and the people who received those gifts of love.
I recently did a Google Hangout for WikiTree about using quilts and other forms of personal handwork as documentation, which you can watch here. As you can see, my producer, Chai, was making sure everything is in order before the hangout started. She, along with her rescue cat-sisters, help me quilt.
Quilters make quilts for many reasons – as varied as there are people and quilts. Almost any opportunity suffices!
Because a new baby is on the way.
Or has just arrived!
Then they start growing up.
You might make a quilt because you’re a grandma and your granddaughter mentions that she likes warm, fuzzy flannel.
Or to comfort a man who suffered through dialysis as single parent and unable to work while he waited for a kidney transplant that he did eventually receive, but it was touch and go for a long time. Whew!
Because your cousin and genealogy buddy’s husband passed away, so you take some scraps from a quilt you made for yourself, assemble it into a quilt overnight, quilt it and have it to her in another state within a week. Who needs sleep? It’s overrated!
When your granddaughter wants a “princess castle.” Note this is a card table cover with an adult doing something on top of the table.
As a gift to celebrate a trip to the Netherlands with, and the retirement of my cousin, Cheryl, with whom I share the Dutch Ferwerda (Ferverda, Fervida) ancestral line and a lot of Frisian DNA. This quilt is so full of symbolism. Delft blue, Netherlands orange, tulips, windmills and more.
Cheryl and I visiting “our” family windmill, above, discovered by ace Dutch genealogist Yvette Hoitink.
And yes, Yvette received a quilt too during my next visit. We’ve become fast friends. I keep waiting for Yvette to discover that we’re related. Hurry up, Yvette!
You might make a quilt as a going away gift (sniffle) for a dear friend who moved (too) far away. This friendship quilt was made by several people, each adding a row with personal meaning for our dear friend. The cats helped!
The center of the friendship quilt is embroidered with “You never really leave a place you love. Part of it you will take with you and part of you will be left behind.”
The bordering row is photos of our quilt group and memories that we shared. This quilt has been passed on to the next generation now, as a healing care quilt gifted with love.
I made this quilt for my long-haul truck-driver brother to use in his rig. Yes, that’s Dave, my brother who wasn’t my brother, but I couldn’t have loved him more. DNA isn’t everything. (Did that really come out of my mouth???)
After my brother who was my brother, John, and my brother who wasn’t my brother, Dave, both passed away (a few months apart no less), I adopted another brother, John. So yes, I really do have my brother John and my other brother John, who has now survived cancer! John lived in Japan and sent me Japanese kimono fabric, part of which I turned into his care quilt during his chemo. Cranes have a special healing significance in Japanese culture, believed to live for a thousand years and referred to as the “bird of happiness.”
My daughter loves shoes and handbags! This one is titled “Diva’s Dreams.” You should see what’s on the back. No, I’m not showing.
Lifetime achievement awards honoring the lifework of Max Blankfeld and Bennett Greenspan establishing the genetic genealogy industry.
Of course, then I wanted a DNA quilt for myself too. And before you ask, sorry, this is not a published pattern but is similar to a free pattern published by “In The Beginning” fabrics. Unfortunately, since the DNA/science fabric is no longer available, neither is the pattern…but you can always try and ask them for a copy.
This quilt was made for cousin to celebrate a trip together to the homeland of our Speak and Bowling ancestors in Lancashire, England, spending time in London on the way, of course. What fun we had and memories we made!
Thank you to a veteran for their service. Again, no pattern. I charted this out on graph paper. I’d like to make another one for myself. So many quilts needing to be made, so little time.
One might make a quilt to relive wonderful memories of a trip to England, represented by lovely English flowers. Never mind that my spouse left me stranded in London. I found a quilt shop to self-medicate with fabric and make myself feel better. I also learned a few new words in the process.
In Gisburn, the village of my Speak family ancestors, we found a lovely tea shop, represented in the four corners by teapots, of course.
For the unborn child of a woman whose firefighter husband was intentionally targeted, run down and killed while participating in the volunteer “Fill-the-Boot” program for Muscular Dystrophy – as she was pregnant with their first child. Worse yet, she was the nurse on duty in the emergency room where her husband was taken after he was hit.
Talk about your worst nightmare. I still shudder to think about this. Many of the care quilts I make are for people who need hope or comfort – or maybe just a hug and reminder that there is love in this world.
Because somebody’s doll needed a “Frozen” quilt. How could I resist this face?
When you need to make a “ garden window” for a friend’s mother who was diagnosed with cancer in the fall and was afraid that she wouldn’t live to see the next spring. She lived to greet several more springtimes.
To say thank you to a wonderful benefactor for funding an archaeological dig.
I absolutely love this quilt! It’s a good thing I made it “for” someone specific or it would never have left my house.
Because your granddaughter loves the Pink Panther and wants to live in Paris.
Always support the dreams of young people! They will be the ones to bring you fabric in your elder years. Someday I’ll explain to her how difficult this multicolor sawtooth block border was to design and construct.
Oh yes, and her doll needed a matching Paris quilt too.
For a police officer shot and nearly killed in the line of duty while responding a domestic dispute in process. His partner was killed that night, in cold blood, by the same perpetrator, a felon previously convicted of murder. I met this quilt’s recipient quite by accident a few years later. A friend and the granddaughters helped.
As a wedding gift for a lovely couple where sunflowers were the theme.
This amazing quilt was a thank you to a wonderful friend whose generosity I could never repay. This is one of my all-time favorite quilts and if I didn’t love him so much, I would have kept it and sent him something else.
I believe that when you make something “for” someone, it must go to them. I create with “intention” and thoughtful focused positive energy – so it would not be right for the quilt to go elsewhere. In essence, it would be “quilt cheating.”
In rare cases where the person passes over before I can finish a care quilt that I was making for them, I ask the family if they would like to have the quilt or would like for me to pass it on to another special person who needs a care quilt.
This cheery quilt hopefully eased the ravages of chemo by allowing the recipient to take his mind elsewhere – to the ocean. The amazing center seascape fabric was painted by Mickey Lawler. Another quilt I loved.
Just because you love purple is a great reason to make a quilt. I originally created this for myself, but then…someone else needed it more than me, so it’s on a journey of its own. I birthed it, but it was not mine to steward. Maybe I’ll make another one and see if I can manage to keep the next one😊
To celebrate a public safety officer’s retirement, where he can finally be safe. Thank God!
That officer is my son, and I sewed patches from his uniforms in the 4 blue corners after I gave him the quilt. It was a very long career for a police officer’s mother to endure. I tried not to worry, but there was just no helping myself. Now he’s on to act two and I hope to live long enough to make him a retirement quilt from his second career!
A cheerful quilt for a family member to celebrate life’s fun moments. The recipient participates in triathlons and the family takes the quilt along for picnics.
Feeling creative with scraps and “thinking outside the box.” This wall hanging is about 5 feet tall.
As a housewarming gift for my daughter. I love her a lot, because I made this quilt for me!😊 Now I get to enjoy it at her house where it was obviously meant to live because it’s absolutely perfect there.
A rose quilt for my son-in-law’s grandmother when she became ill. She loved pink and roses.
After Grandma passed over, I made this memory quilt featuring spare fabric from her rose quilt, other fabrics to commemorate her interests, a couple sweatshirt fronts including a turkey at the top made by her grandchildren along with Grandma’s apron that she made and wore every Christmas holiday to make special cookies – for as long as my son-in-law can remember. The brown border fabric is St. Louis arch fabric to celebrate good memories.
Not all quilts are made for humans, however.
Ellie, my grandpuppy had a “baby quilt” that I made the week my daughter rescued her and she was living with me because my daughter then left for vacation. We bonded.
A year or so later, Ellie rescued another fur-family member.
One might make a quilt as a couch cover. (Ok, truth – I gave this to my grandpuppies who loved it…to death.)
Then, they received their own “dog quilts.” They love them, especially when grandma comes over to babysit when they don’t feel well and snuggle with them. (What do you mean by, “are they spoiled?”)
As a memory quilt for a father whose son died a tragic, long, painful death, the result of a drunk driver who hit his car head on. I officiated at the funeral of this young man. Heartbreaking is an understatement. So many lives destroyed and others indelibly changed.
And another quilt for the mother of that same son. I hope these quilts brought them more peace than sadness. Each parent chose the items they wanted in their individual quilts. All of the fabric in the front of both quilts is from the son’s clothing. Knowing the family well, these quilts were extremely difficult for me as the quiltmaker.
This next quilt, on the other hand, was a lot of fun! You might recognize this as the Texas state flag.
I made this quilt for my good friend, Janine, who is a proud 5th generation Texan, loves Texas, and we have such wonderful memories together.
Quilted with boots and other Texas symbols.
With NASCAR fabric on the back, because Janine is an awesome reporter on the NASCAR circuit.
Gifted to her as a surprise alongside a Texas road one spring day taking photographs together when the bluebonnets were blooming. What wonderful memories we’ve made and continue to make!
I kept hoping Janine and I would discover that we are cousins! It finally happened along with a DNA match. Viva genealogy!!!
A wall-hanging made for my mother to celebrate her dancing career, titled “Stars Over Broadway,” made from ribbons Mom won for crocheting and other handwork at various state and county fairs. Mom was an incredible multi-talented lady.
This quilt is also nicknamed, “Never Again” as it fought me every step of the way and was much more difficult than it looks due to the intertwined custom “dancing” design and the unforgiving nature of the ribbons.
This is what happens when your husband mentions that he wants a table cover for his ham radio work. Yes, that is printed circuit board fabric! Electronics is his passion and he loves his geeky quilt!
Said husband and I made this quilt together on the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing to celebrate that historic day that inspired Jim to enter the world of electronics. One day that choice would allow him to contribute to the Mars Insight project – 50 years later.
And look, they found the cat that jumped over the moon. Who knew?
When your quilt-sister helps you finish the quilt (at her son’s house) because your brother (John) had just been diagnosed with cancer and you need to have the quilt done by, literally, tomorrow morning. Yes, you might say that Mary and my families are intertwined now. Families of heart for decades, that’s for sure. Weddings, births, deaths, surgeries, Christmas Eves, memories, love. May we have many more years.
A memory quilt for my brother, John, after my mother passed away. The blocks in the quilt are Mom’s clothes and linen calendar towels that she collected every year. She also gave them as gifts every year too.
Every. Single. Year.
I selected calendar towel years in which something significant happened in John’s life. There are more towels on the back too.
I made a quilt commemorating Mom’s life for myself too, and one for all 5 of her grandchildren. I even included a piece of my Dad’s tie that he wore walking me down the aisle – blue diagonal striped material in the right border, beside the pig towel. Yes, I grew up on a hog farm and wouldn’t trade it for the world. This quilt graces “Mom’s” bed in the spare bedroom, so keeps her grandson and family warm when they visit.
A fun I-spy quilt for a senior citizen who lives in a group care facility and still loves Santa. His communication is limited but the smile on his face was a mile wide and he wants to keep this quilt on his bed year-round!
Ronnie says of his quilt, “Heaven might be like this.” I hope so Ronnie!
Flowers for my close friend who is now cancer-free. This quilt accompanied her through the rough times, and now will see her through many wonderful years too.
To celebrate the new millennium and that I survived Y2K in a technology field. LHM!!!
My husband and I selected these fabrics and made this quilt before we were married. Don’t tell him, but that just might have had something to do with why I said “yes.”
When your young rescue cat, Elizabeth, at left, only 18 months old, has cancer and isn’t going to be with you very long. Elizabeth loved her soft quilt.
Both of these fur children came to live with me after abuse and starvation at the hands of a monster. Kitters, at right, still loves the quilts, now hers via right of inheritance.
Some quilts get loved so much they have to be patched. The original owner of this quilt, an amazing cat named Tabitha, has passed on now, but the family is still loving her quilt (and her.)
Sometimes quilts receive a Second Act that is more important, and sometimes more appreciated than the first one. Ellie and Libby, my grandpuppies, had possession of this quilt for awhile, but Kitters, Chai and Mandy, cats who are infinitely disgusted by dogs have taken possession now, when Jim isn’t napping under it. And sometimes when he is. The battle continues.
Film at 11.
This quilt went to the family of a young man who tragically perished in a housefire, along with everything in the house including their fur-family.
Another two quilts went to his mother and sister as well. I’m very negligent about taking pictures before the quilts leave for their intended homes.
Literally hundreds of these “care quilts” have been created over the years by the quilt-sisters, sometimes alone, but often working together on the spur of the moment, between jobs and families, to create a healing gift for someone in need.
Sometimes fur-family members get into the act too. I needed all the help I could get with the blocks of a wedding quilt!
This Navajo Code Talker quilt of love was made for Code Talker, USMC William Brown. Sadly, he passed over as the quilt was on its way, but it served him at his funeral in a place of honor, and now comforts his daughter.
A surprise by the quilt-sisters to celebrate Mary’s 50th anniversary.
Indeed, quilts are expressions of love to celebrate births, anniversaries and everything in-between. To commemorate lives well-lived and lost too soon. For people we know and love and “care quilts” for people we’ve never met but need a helping hand or a lift of their spirits.
So to answer my friend who, by now, is probably extremely sorry he asked and dozed off long ago. Quilts are the spirit of humanity, pedestrian scraps of life joined together to create beauty, but most of all, quilts are simply expressions of love.
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