Violet gathered the things she would need for the day, and with eighteen-month-old baby on one hip and her bundle on the other, she set out walking to her mother’s house half a mile away. The morning was cold but clear, and the fresh air cleansed her lungs of the soot and smoke of the fireplace. She and the baby shared a quilt that had been used just enough to attain that softness that felt like skin. She walked quickly for a woman heavy with a child on her hip and another one growing inside her, watching the feather clouds expanding against the faded blue of January’s sky.
These weekly quilting bees were her rescue, her one chance for social interaction and communication. At least ten women would be there, willing to battle the elements for a chance to share joy and pain with a group of peers. Everyone in her group were struggling, each from a farm family that had depleted last year’s crop money by Christmas, with months of winter, planting, and working the fields before there would be any more. Violet knew that sharing pain makes it smaller, and sharing good times causes them to seem even better.
Her mother’s house was small. The living room furniture had been pushed against the wall to make room for the women to stand around the quilting frame attached to the ceiling. The space available didn’t allow for chairs to be brought in. The women standing on each side of the quilting frame had to squeeze in when someone needed to move. The women switched sides when it was time to roll the quilt; one side was near the wood heater and the other near the door. One group would warm up while the other cooled down.
Violet’s baby, among several others, were kept on a pallet beneath the quilting frame, where they could be tended to without the quilter moving from her spot. Her mother had started a pot of soup for the noonday meal, and it bubbled on the wood heater as the women talked and stitched.
It was 1935. The Great Depression covered them like a heavy blanket. The women heard or understood little of what was going on in New York’s stock market, about economics or soup lines. All they knew was that their farmer husbands couldn’t find any work to do during the winter months, and there was no cash for anything. They stuffed their shoes with cardboard, unraveled old sweaters to make smaller ones for the children, and recycled everything.
When clothing was worn to the point it could no longer be patched or reused, the women cut the usable parts, sometimes the back of the sleeves or the lower backs of shirts, and made the scraps into quilts. Hand-stitching the scraps together, they were able to create something of beauty, something to brighten the beds with color. After the quilt tops were done, the women of the community were happy to join together to do the quilting, the joining of the top with batting and a back.
They talked as they worked, these simple women who survived hard times and built families that thrived. They heard of husbands that were ashamed of their inability to provide, of impending births and deaths. Someone shared a letter they had received from northern relatives; the times were hard there, too. Another, exhausted, told of staying up
several nights with their little one who was burning with fever, bathing its hot skin with water and alcohol until the fever broke.
Violet and her peers made quilts to hide them from the cold and express some artistic need that hard times couldn’t extinguish. But they made much more than quilts. They laid strong foundations for women who would construct their lives in easier financial
times. They were the embodiment of fortitude, of pressing on when all seemed hopeless.
Most of the quilts from Violet and her quilting bees have long ceased to exist. They were slept under, used as pallets, and nailed over windows to keep out cold winds. They were carried to the fields in summer for the baby to play and nap on, and used as their tablecloth for picnic dinners. They made tents over chairs for the children to play in, and covered furniture when it was worn down to the padding. After the edges were too worn to repair, they were cut off and the quilt, with its new binding, became a smaller version that would last a while longer.
Violet didn’t wake up one morning and decide to become a quilter. It was just something all women of her time did, just like tending a vegetable garden or raising chickens for fresh eggs. She did what she could to make life better for her family. She did that extremely well.
Fast forward to January, 2010. A group of women meet on Tuesday nights to learn to quilt as Violet and her friends did. I wish she could have been there, could have seen how her progeny have prospered. Surely, Violet could not have imagined how different our lives are today.
We had a modern, comfortable room for our quilting frame, with rolling chairs and vented heat. We do not use anything recycled; all of our materials were bought just for the quilts. We arrived to our quilting bee in warm cars, wrapped in warm clothing. No one is hungry; no one is lacking medical care. We do not have to rush to finish a quilt so that our children would sleep warm that night.
Still, in many ways, we are the same as Violet. We grieve at the news of a sickness, of children making bad decisions. We laugh at ourselves, at our attempts to make perfect stitches and hide our knots so they will never be seen. We discuss moral issues, politics, and weight-loss, something Violet never worried about.
The quilt we are working on becomes our instrument to fulfill our need to create and surround ourselves with beauty, our vehicle to relieve stress and calm our souls, our place to find quiet and peace. I think Violet was searching for the same things.
Funding for this quilt class was provided by a grant from the Alabama State Council on the Arts.