Old Quilts: Cut or Keep

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Snapshots of Everyday People:
By Margaret Rowney and Marian Langhus

I was invited to drop into Marian Langhus’s workshop, Old Quilts: Cut or Keep on Saturday morning, November 5. She was upstairs in the Captain’s Room when I arrived. It seems that quilts were everywhere; on the dining room table, in the Queen Room, on the railing and piled high in each of the five bedrooms. Participants were pouring over century-old quilts in various stages of restoration. They were exchanging suggestions and evaluating what could be done to each quilt to make it usable in Lang House Bed and Breakfast.

It was then that I realized that there was a story in these old quilts; not just one, but also many.

Q. Marian, when I visited with you during your workshop, you told me that you had 40 quilts, is that true?

A. After you left, Margaret, I counted up 46 quilts and 5 quilt tops.   I am not including the stacks of quilt blocks that would make up at least 3 or 4 more quilts.

 

Q. How do you know where to begin with so many quilts?

A. I went back to my oldest personal treasure of a bedspread or tablecloth sewn by my maternal grandmother, Alice Morrissey, from Grand Falls. I have a smaller tablecloth that goes with it. Both pieces attest to how she made the best out of potato sacks and scraps of material. She made my mother’s wedding suit from a worn suit from my Uncle Fred.

 

In order for me to really love a quilt, it has to show ingenuity in making pieces from used material or scraps. Quilt blocks that have splicing, piecing together of small pieces to make a part of a larger block are my weakness. In one woolen crazy quilt I have, a block is made from the part of a suit above a front pocket.

 

Q. Do you get your love of quilts from your grandmother?

A. I think that she sewed out of necessity. I don’t know if she made regular pattered quilts. My mother, Becky McNally, made her first quilt 50 years ago with the Canadian Centennial Symbol. I keep that one on the rack as it is so worn, but it is so soft.

 

She has made me many quilts; the South Carolina Star is amazing. A lesson that we take away from it is that at first she quilted it with navy blue thread that was not made for quilting. In a few years of use, it had to be completely re-quilted.

 

Q. From what I can tell from you, Marian, is that you are not a quilter yet you collect and fix quilts? Is that true of anyone else in your family?

A. My sister, Hilda Hunt from Stewiacke, Nova Scotia, is not only a quilt maker but also one who restores quilts. Back about five years ago, Bruce and I rescued old quilts from a Good Will operation in Oklahoma City where you bought items “Buy the Pound.”  Many of my quilts come from there at $5 or $6 each. I brought my sister a black quilt with beautiful assorted colours, mainly yellow. The piecework was exquisite but someone with a long arm quilter ruined it. My sister’s husband, Bucky, removed the stitches (Bless him!) and Hilda re-quilted it and gave it away as a cherished wedding present.

She gave Bruce and me an exquisite Grandmother’s basket that was a total resurrection. Not only was the quilt top not finished, it also lacked many pieces, someone washed it to the point that a large portion was torn and coming undone. She used pieces of old white material to match it and selected vintage aprons to match the period piece! She is a textile genius!

 

Q. Marian, you must have made some quilts if your mother and sister are so talented.

A. Thirty-one years ago I have made a crazy quilt out of men’s ties in dark fall colors. I learned how to make crazy quilts from analyzing old ones from the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John. My mother actually did some of the work restoring them. The key was to make a 14-inch block with nine pieces. I just finished a double-sided quilt for my new grandson with Halloween fabric on one side (one big courthouse step pattern) and the other side with Christmas material. The Halloween fabric was bought before my son was born. He is now 31.

 

Q. What possessed you to go through this effort of organizing all the quilts as you have?

A. I think that I am always a teacher at heart and I wanted to show fellow quilt enthusiasts the common mistakes. I laid out each of the four rooms upstairs with a different theme. The Writer’s Room was “stitching” and how quilts degrade over time if they are not done properly. I have a vintage quilt that has lumps of battening that really detract from the look and feel of the quilt. Another quilt has barely any surviving stitching except an elaborately pieced star. My first impression on seeing it was disappointment even though the piecing is technically without fault.

 

Q. What is the oldest quilt that you have in your collection?

A. It is debatable about one quilt that I got in Charleston that has three layers. I always want to fantasize that it was a quilt from the Civil War that led slaves to the Underground Railroad.
I have several embroidered quilts where the dates were added 1889 and 1903.

 

Q. It must be difficult to know what to do with such old pieces. How do you decide?

A. I try to get the vintage quilts to a point that I can use them. We buy most of our quilt pieces off E-Bay and no information accompanies them. You can just imagine that they were part of estate sales. I use them as display or just shelve them until I find the right material to heal them.

 

Q. Your advertisement said, “Old Quilts: Cut or Keep,” do you really cut up old quilts?

A. To be honest, one of the objectives today was to see if I had a “cutter.” Turns out, “maybe” but not yet. We discussed a beautiful yellow fan quilt at length. A mouse had eaten through it in four places (actually it was folded so it was only one place.) It would be an excellent candidate to make four wall hangings.

Q. Was there any common thread (pun intended) or theme throughout your workshop?

A. Repeatedly we referred to “the weakest fabric.” As we went along, we saw that if one piece of a Dresden plate or fan was worn through, it was a black and white or white with black print. We also noted that blue fabrics seemed to alter chemically with time and often appeared rusted or dirty.

 

Q. Did any part of the workshop surprise you?

A. The length of time that we spent on certain quilts was the most amusing to me. If my sister Hilda could have heard people analyzing her block quilt, she would have blushed purple! The king sized block quilt is like “structured chaos” and host of other phrases.

 

Q. Your advertisement encouraged participants to bring their own projects. Did anyone do that?

A. I was most amused that Lisa Dawson brought a quilt with holes in it and we realized that it had been folded and damaged by a mouse similar to my yellow fan. But the best part of all was giving her a part of my “quilt that keeps on giving” to patch it. Her quilt had turquoise sailboats on a white background. I had a piece to fix her sails from an old quilt back that I have as a resource for old patchwork quilts.

 

Q. It is clear that you love your quilts, Marian. Why do you want to pass this love onto others?

A. I see the energy that quilts give off. In my case, old quilts that need fixing; quilt tops that need finishing; or quilt blocks to be assembled all enliven me. Earlier this month, my 96-year-old mother told me that every day she felt that she was fading more and more. After I left she thought of a box of material up high in the back of her closet. She dug it out and found it was full of material ready to sew into quilts from 30 years ago. She just started piecing it together by machine and then put it on a frame to quilt. In a few days she had it made. When I spoke to her on the phone she sounded as excited as a schoolgirl. A box of fabric can do that to someone! I want others to experience this both for themselves and their children!

 

 

 

 

 

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