What is it about a beautiful handmaid quilt that makes your heart want to sing when you look at it or run your fingers over the seemingly endless stitches that were so lovingly placed throughout? For me it is an appreciation of an art that gives me a connection to the past. My mom, Jean Gibson Kreuser, came from a long line of Kentucky quilters who quilted out of necessity.
Growing up on a small 100 acer farm during the depression, my mom and her sisters used every scrap of fabric they could find in order to make coverings that would keep them warm at night. I remember her telling us stories how they would cut squares out of old shirts, dresses and sometimes even feed sacks to create their quilt tops. When looking in her old trunk, which I viewed more like a treasure chest, she still had several hand pieced blocks that she made when she was a young girl.
As a child, I remember my mom was a woman who loved to keep her hands busy. I can still see her sitting in the old rocking chair crocheting or embroidering as we watched television or listened to music on the radio or phonograph. When I was very young, Mom sewed on an old Singer treadle sewing machine, as did my grandmother. I could sit at her feet for hours watching the wheel spin and the fabric run past the sewing feed as she made curtains for our windows or created the cutest clothes for me and my little sister, Melody.
At the young age of seven I desperately wanted to learn how to sew on that old machine and pestered my mom until she finally agreed to teach me. I was thrilled when Mom told us that our first project would be a nine-patch quilt top. The nine-patch was an old favorite of Mom’s, since it reminded her of her own childhood and all of the hours she spent sewing with her sisters.
In making the nine-patch, the first thing we had to do was to cut an accurate two and a half inch square for the template. Once we got the cardboard template made, the next step was to tediously trace and cut the squares on varied scraps of cloth, being careful not to waste any fabric. We then sorted out the solids and prints, making what I thought were a very pleasing arrangement of blocks on the table. At last we were ready to sew.
On modern sewing machines, it is quite easy to make an accurate seam. On the old treadle it was more difficult so you had to mark the sewing lines for the seams to insure accuracy or use the presser foot as a gauge. With her loving hands guiding me each step of the way we worked diligently and actually completed the quilt top during the course of the summer between my second and third grade. Today, that old quilt resides at my sister’s house, and as tattered and worn as it is—the quilt has been an old favorite for many years.
Being a lover of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I have always had a soft spot for dear Georgiana, the younger sister who remembers so little of the mother who died when she was but a little girl. In my story Lady Anne’s Quilt, I have decided to give Georgiana a loving bond to her past through a very special heirloom, her mother’s quilt. Georgiana and her new sister, Elizabeth, happen to come upon the quilt while exploring the contents of an old trunk which was left by Lady Anne for her daughter’s sixteenth birthday. From there, a story of discovery allows Georgiana to connect with her mother in a way that is very endearing. This story may be found on the completed stories board on the forum. Lady Anne’s Quilt
In researching quilts made during Jane Austen’s time, I discovered that most quilts were often made from whole cloth and were not necessarily pieced or appliquéd as many are today. Even so, I learned by reading a wonderful UK article printed in The Jane Austen Community which tells us that Jane, her sister Cassandra, and her mother hand pieced the beautiful patchwork quilt that is now on display at Chawton Cottage in Hampton, UK. Here is a quote from the article.
In May 1811, Jane asked her sister Cassandra, “have you remembered to collect pieces for the Patchwork?—we are now at a standstill.”
In corresponding with Sue Dell, Collections Volunteer at Jane Austen’s House Museum whose specialty is the Austen quilt, Sue told me that the central medallion is a chintz fabric that was taken from a piece that was sold as a panel for quilting, making chair covers or fireplace screens. The central medallion was cut out of this panel in the shape of a diamond and is equivalent in size to 121 of the small edging diamonds. Because it is printed, there is no piecing involved in this section of the quilt. Sue say that the full panel can be seen in a quilt in the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle in Yorkshire.
In addition to the center medallion, there are at least 64 fabrics including a mixture of dress fabrics and furnishing fabric that are used in the construction of the quilt. The central area is made up of block printed fabrics that were probably fussy cut. This technique centers the flower before cutting out the shape. The small diamonds around the edge are largely made from roller printed fabrics.
There is no embroidery on the quilt. In fact, Sue says that though it is called a quilt, it is considered a coverlet since there is a layer of wadding between the patchwork and the backing, but the layers have not been connected by a quilting stitch. While there were quilts made at this time with the quilting stitch going through all of the layers, Sue believes that the Austen women made theirs for decoration rather than warmth. Interestingly, Sue also says that the quilt is completely symmetrical in terms of the positioning of the patches—even the tiny diamonds around the edge.
When taking in all of the planning that must have gone into the quilt by the Austen women, and viewing the end result, one can only image that the hand sewing of this treasure would have taken months to complete. For those of us who value the art of quilting, I feel that we are fortunate to have this particular connection to Jane Austen’s past. My heartfelt thanks of appreciation go out to all lovers of Austen and to those historians who have worked so hard to preserve another part of her legacy.
NOTE: I would like to make mention of an incredibly beautiful book called Jane Austen Patchwork Mystery by Linda Franz. In it you will find wonderful color pictures and additional information about Jane Austen’s quilt. Included are step-by-step instructions of how you might make your own patchwork treasure.
ALSO: I would like to acknowledge Sue Dell, who so graciously answered many of my quilt questions by email. Sue will be speaking at the Jane Austen North American (JASNA) convention on Friday, October 21, 2016 from 7:00-8:00 pm. The Annual General Meeting takes place from October 21-23 in Washington DC Metropolitan USA. Here is the blurb from her lecture:
Jane Austen was an adept needlewoman who did plain sewing and participated in the decorative crafts of the wealthier classes. Jane, her mother, and her sister together stitched a unique and beautifully designed quilt, now displayed at Jane Austen’s House Museum. Slides showing the quilt in previously unseen detail will accompany a discussion of its design, construction, and historical context.
I would love to know if you have ever been to Chawton House and seen the Jane Austen Quilt. Or if you have a special quilt story of your own, please feel free to share it in the comments thread. Thanks so much for reading my blog today. Jen Red ♫