Mar 11

Scrap of the week #29


After a relative dearth of scraps, here’s a whole slew to make up for it. I hope you can handle  all the excitement!


Rail fence quilt top

This exuberant patchwork quilt-top was made by my Pennsylvanian grandmother. It’s a simple machine-pieced single quilt top which was not completed.

It isn’t fancy: a thrown-together-fast strip pattern called ‘rail fence’. Each little strip measures about three inches by one.

To make rail fence, three strips are joined to make one square block. The blocks are then arranged (one vertical, one horizontal, etc) and joined into strips, the strips then joined to build up the entire quilt top. Simple, but lively. It seems to me that the  placing and piecing haven’t been sweated over too much: this is a hap quilt, the pieces falling pretty much where they will. The lines of stitching are a little rough-and-ready too. But Nana had plenty of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and didn’t have time to spare on perfectionism.


Rail fence patchwork

The workmanship and provenance may not be grand, but these scraps are like little jewels to me. I know that some of them came from humble feedsacks. Others were cut from plain fabrics bought by the yard. I’m sure Nana would have kept precious scraps a long while. She grew up on a farm, one of fourteen children, and resources were scarce. I think she’d have been conservative, therefore, so maybe some of these fabrics date to way back whenever. She worked in a shirt factory for a while (in the 1910s, I think) so I wonder if any of these could be shirt offcuts.

My mother used to tell me that some of these prints featured in her childhood clothes from the late 1920s and 1930s. Other scraps are a little later. I don’t know exactly when Nana made it; it could possibly date any time up to the late ’70s. I’m not sure precisely when she stopped sewing; she had bad arthritis in her hands and I think she’d stopped for a while before she died in the 1980s.


Rail fence close-up

A few people have suggested I complete this quilt. But I’m reluctant to. I feel that the WIP tells its own special story and has its own value; I’m reluctant to meddle with this time-capsule. But I’d love to ask you: if it were your grandmother’s handiwork, what would you do? Finish? Or leave it as is? And why? Have you finished off your own grandmother’s (or your mother’s) quilt? Did you feel you owed that to her? All valid points! Please do take just a moment to share your thoughts. I love to hear them. Thank you!



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  1. Sue Deere says:

    I think it is lovely – and it might be nice for such a prosaic piece of work to be used. I think it is slightly different for you, as you can use the quilt top as teaching material, but if I had it, it would live in a box unless I finished it and snuggled under it to watch the occasional DVD.

    I was closest to my mum's mum – a knitter – but my dad's mum left a completed quilt, that my eldest sister has, and an unfinished one that I had. The unfinished one only had a handful of bright pink polycotton hexagons tacked together, and I used the hexagons in some smaller pieces, as a quilt of that fabric was likely to be so bright as to damage beholders' eyes!

  2. Sarah Campbell says:

    That's a beautiful exuberant quilt with a lovely history, it's hard to see what exactly is unfinished about it. I think I might line and back it with a plain sweet cotton, maybe a washed blue, for its own protection, and perhaps run plain bands round the front to 'frame' the pieced work. Good luck, lucky.

  3. claire says:

    wow – what a treasure! I'd be tempted to leave it as it is and maybe hang it on the wall like a piece of art and tell it's story as is…
    Luckily it's in great hands if you do decide to finish it.

  4. What a treasure. Sadly although my mum was a prolific sewer it was our clothes she made so nothing like this exists anymore. I feel I would want to finish it, probably as already said with a simple cotton back and a border. It was made to be used and I think because of our cleaner homes and better washing aids it would not be put through quite the same rigours as the other one. I am sure though that as you obviously cherish it, ultimately it will be preserved in the best way. Just don't hide it away!

  5. Magic Cochin says:

    I like it's randomness. What you've pointed out about it being unfinished, unused and unfaded makes it a treasure trove of everyday fabrics from 20s and 30s and I think that if you do finish and use it, you should photograph and record all the different fabrics used. We tend to picture past eras as faded and muted in colour, so original sources like this show the true vibrancy and palette of that time.

  6. boostitch artist researcher says:

    OOH – this is such a beauty! I was lucky to see it last Saturday at the International Women's Day Tea Party.
    I would keep it as it is – loved dearly. I have worked on an embroidered cloth that my grandmother began, my mother worked on, and I will pass to my nieces. I also worked on a Liberty Lawn quilt as you know as part of looking after my mother, later exhibited… Thanks for sharing this beautiful piece of family treasure!

  7. knitsofacto says:

    Who needs perfectionism … this is glorious!!

  8. alwaysfindahappyplace says:

    I've been coming back to this post a few times over the last week and not commenting because I can't make my mind up as to whether I think it should be finished or not! It's just gorgeous and glorious – and those colours are wonderful. As a person who occasionally finishes a quilt I think I'd want it finished (I'm currently trying to teach my two smalls patchwork in anticipation of the WIPs I'll be leaving behind one day – hopefully a long time distant!). That said, it is a special antique and shouldn't run the risk of coffee and pasta sauce stains. Tricky – very tricky, I see the quandary. Who can you ask for conservation advice?

  9. thevintagetraveler says:

    I loved what you said about the lack of perfectionism. So true.

    I also have a pieced top made by my grandmother. also quite haphazardly designed and crudely stitched. At one point my mother must have washed it because some of the pieces have frayed and pulled loose from the stitching. Several years ago I set about restitching and stabilizing it, but I've never gotten it quilted. I may do it though, as I like the idea of snuggling under it.

  10. What a wonderful treasure. It took me a while to come across it here on your blog but I'm so glad you posted about it – I was dying to see more after that taster on Twitter!

    As for what to do with it next, I suppose I would probably take an in-between approach. I firmly believe that objects like this were made to be used: all those tiny pieces were cut and sewn with the intent that it keep a loved one warm. I don't believe in keeping special items on a high shelf, unused.

    That's just me, though, and of course I understand about historical and emotional preservation – thus the in-between. I'd finish it, making it a beautiful collaboration between you and your Nana (which I bet she'd have loved) but then keep it as a wall-hanging. It seems pretty large there, but I'm personally all for a full-wall quilt hanging, it'd be lovely if you have the wall space to give it. If not, another decorative use then – perhaps it could have its own quilt rack, so it can be admired and kept safe from wear-and-tear at the same time.

    Whatever you do with it though, it's gorgeous, and you're so lucky to have it – thank you for sharing it with us!

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