Homespun Handcraft by Ella Shannon Bowles (Part Two!)

posted in: Art, Quilting, Word Nerd 17
"Square In a Square" quilt, c. 1880. Probably Pennsylvania. Image: Wikipedia, courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
“Square In a Square” quilt, c. 1880. Probably Pennsylvania. Image: Wikipedia, courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art.


Yesterday, I introduced the great book I found in a used bookshop. I promised to include an excerpt from the chapter on quilting and I kind of didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

The chapter on the “Old-Time Quilt” is really good. It’s so good that I tried to pare down the excerpt I selected but really could not force myself to cut out a single line! So I was typing for some minutes and you’ll be reading for some minutes, but I wouldn’t have kept typing or suggest you keep reading if I didn’t think it was worth it.

Here’s some of what Ella Shannon Bowles had to say about quilts back in the day. Remember, she was writing in the 1930s about “old-time” quilts in the “pioneer days.” I would go back to the text and pin down the exact years/timespans she’s talking about but I am very tired and still have homework. Let’s just call it “the nineteenth century” and call it good enough.

Enjoy. And may you all have full snuff boxes (!) and a “jolly feeling” all week.

“House-keeping was the goal of every girl’s ambition and her “setting out” was planned for years. When she had assembled a number of quilt-tops, a quilting was held. To it were invited every woman and girl for miles around. Usually the housewife planned to get the quilting out of the way before haying. The quilting-frolics, with their accompaniments of good cheer and jolly feeling, had an important social significance.

Before the guests assembled, the quilting-frames were brought in from the loom-shed. They were long pieces of wood, held together with wooden pegs thrust through gimlet-holes to form a rectangular frame large enough to hold the quilt. The frames were wound with flannel, serving as a foundation for sewing the quilt in place. First, the frames were placed upon the floor and the lining sewn in and pats of wool laid evenly upon it. Then the frames were carefully lifted to the tops of four kitchen chairs, and placed under each corner at such a height as would be most convenient for the workers. Then the patch-work top was laid across the wool-pats and pinned evenly all around the edge. Skeins of blue and white linen thread, braided to prevent snarling, a spool of red thread from the store, a needle-book, wax, and scissors were arranged on a table for the convenience of the quilters.

As early as one o’clock in the afternoon the guests began to arrive. The quilt-pattern was duly admired and then the consideration of the stitches to be used in the quilting was taken up. “Cat-a-cornered” and herring-bone stitch were favorites in rural parts of New Hampshire, though the pine-tree was liked by expert needlewomen. The women who could not gather about the quilt knit or worked on their own sewing. Tongues chattered as fingers flew and soon the quilt was ready to be rolled over the frames as far as finished. During this interval snuff-boxes were passed and then the guests who had not quilted drew up to the frames. When the last row of quilting was reached, the married women left the frames and, with jokes and rippling laughter, the girls began a contest to see who should set the last stitch. The damsel lucky enough to do this would be the first to take a husband!

Now the quilt was taken from the frames, shaken and folded and admired. Mrs. Rollins tells us that the finishing of a quilt was a gala day for the neighborhood. “It was unrolled and cut out with much excitement,” she says. “When Hannah took it to the porch-door to shake it out, the women all followed her, clutching its edges, remarking upon the plumpness of the stitched leaves, and the fineness of its texture. It was truly a beautiful thing, for it was the growth of the farm, an expression of the life of its occupants, a fit covering for those who made it.”

After the  men of the family were given their supper, the table was spread with a diaper-wove huckaback tablecloth. The cherished china was brought out and platters of cold meat, puffy biscuits, tarts, pound and plum cake were set out for tea for the quilters. Guests helped “clear up,” and then the husbands and the sweethearts came to take the women home.”

17 Responses

  1. Jo Chalk
    | Reply

    Mary, what a lucky find, that was delightful.

  2. Susan
    | Reply

    As Jo says, this was delightful!

  3. Kris West Mimier
    | Reply

    Don’t you just want to spend one afternoon with them……

  4. jean morton
    | Reply

    What a lovely story. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Katie
    | Reply

    I desperately want to be a part of one of these extravaganzas some day, this sounds like such wonderful community!

  6. Marcie Weiler
    | Reply

    Part of this was shown in an episode of “The Waltons” except it lasted all day. When the men came to pick up the women they were singing a “Quilting Song”. Evidently, there were a number of songs that either of both men and women sung According to some books I’ve read, Quilting Day for a new bride was almost like a barn raising, families, food, men doing chores or special projects for either the new family or the family hosting and likely a dance in the evening. I admire the writer of the book and would adore to see the sections on housework and sewing but she lived in a time where research was unknown outside of universities. I googled quilting songs years ago and got several hits but didn’t have the common sense to print them out.

  7. Nadine donovan
    | Reply

    Wow- really special book. A very enjoyable read. Thank you for sharing.

  8. Lori E
    | Reply

    Oh how I aspire to be an expert needlewoman. Thank you!

  9. Jennifer
    | Reply

    Mrs Bowles warranted an NY Times obituary:
    I bet she was an interesting woman!

  10. Neame
    | Reply

    Fascinating and well worth the time to read. Thanks. I notice she never uses the term “quilting bee”. Maybe it was unknown at the time or unknown in her region of the country. I’ve heard that such events still happen among some subgroups in our country such as the Amish and Mennonite folk. Perhaps opportunity lies there.

    Thanks again, Mary


    • Joyce Skinner
      | Reply

      Groups of women still gather to quilt together….it is not only the Amish and/or Mennonite women gathering together. There are many modern groups gathering together to make and quilt “Quilts of Valor”. Perhaps not in the way of the women in the book but still getting together to “do good” and have a great time in “fellowship.

  11. Kathryn Darnell
    | Reply

    I will be jolly all day after reading this treasured history of quilting society. Love the social aspect of this and you know the lady of the house made her best cakes to serve her friends. Company of ladies being alone together must have been a cherished time for all of them. Thanks for giving me a jolly day.

  12. Sarah
    | Reply

    A sweet story and a pleasure to read. Still, I couldn’t help thinking about the “cons” of such a simple time; things like untreatable blood poisoning, tuberculosis, diphtheria, tetanus, and so forth. And these days, women can get together to quilt by driving themselves and not waiting for “menfolk” to take them.

    • Mary
      | Reply

      You make a good point, Sarah.

  13. Melanie
    | Reply

    This was pure loveliness to read. I really enjoyed the picture it drew in my mind.

  14. Patty
    | Reply

    Well I think this book could not have fallen into to any better hands.

  15. Mary Lynn
    | Reply

    Delightful – makes me want to find a time tunnel and join in for a day.

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