Making Mom's Quilt: The Full Story!
by Anna Grossnickle Hines
Mid-afternoon on a day in late September of 1995 my husband Gary, our sixteen year-old daughter Lassen and I uncoiled ourselves from our little Colt Vista and ambled stiffly up the walk at my Aunt Fran's house in Blanchester, Ohio. It had been a long drive from Eastern Pennsylvania. Aunt Fran, Aunt Esther, Uncle Bob and Aunt Betty met us enthusiastically at the door.
As soon as we'd shared warm hugs all around and declined offers of snacks and cool drinks Aunt Esther said, "Well then, let's see the quilt squares!"
That's what we were there for, to put a quilt together as a surprise for my mother. The squares, made by Mom's siblings, children, grandchildren and friends, had been arriving at my house since March, the first of our several deadlines. They were wonderful to see! We looked through them, spread them out on Aunt Fran's big table and got more and more excited about our project.
It was Lassen who had first suggested making a quilt about a year and a half before. The two of us were out on an errand when I said, "We should really do something special for Grandma one of these days." Without a moments hesitation Lassen said, "We should make her a friendship quilt." It was a great idea.
Mom had taken up quilting when she retired from Lockheed a few years earlier. Her sister Esther, already a quilter, got her started by helping her put one together using a top hand-pieced by my great-grandmother before her death in the 1950's. Mom then took a class near her new home in the Santa Clarita Valley in California. There she made good friends and beautiful quilts. Her first hand-pieced quilt won a viewer's choice ribbon at the Quilt Show.
Lassen and I thought it would be fun to invite other family members and friends to contribute squares. Since we didn't want skill levels to inhibit anyone, we decided that squares could be made using anything from patchwork, appliqué and embroidery to fabric markers, paints and Xeroxed photos.
I wrote to my sister Nelda to ask what she thought. She asked the others, Mom has five of us plus our spouses and children, and all agreed to do it and to invite Mom's siblings and quilting friends to participate as well. Mom had continued to meet and quilt with the friends she had made in the class. I knew a couple of first names. Nelda found out which store had sponsored the class and got the phone number of one member of the group, who sent us a list of names and addresses of six who would like to participate.
My sister-in-law Lisa, who is very creative and
efficient, wanted all the particulars so she could get started right away.
We joked that hers would certainly be the first square done while my sister
Sue would be doing hers at midnight the night before the deadline.
Aunt Esther called from Florida. She
was enthusiastic about the idea and made several helpful suggestions, including
one that I purchase some fabric and send it to all participants so that
everyone could use a bit of it in each square to help unify the quilt.
She also said it might be a good idea to suggest a color which everyone
could try to use. Aunt Fran, another quilter, wrote an excited letter
in which she offered to help in any way she could including making squares
for family members who were no longer with us.
Now it was July and things were back in my hands. I procrastinated, letting other things take priority, partly because even with everyone's suggestions it was hard to decide how to begin. With so many of us, and spread from Florida to Pennsylvania and Ohio to California we were clearly not going to be able to get together and make a group decision. It was up to me. One problem was that I didn't really have a clear count of how many squares would get done. Some families were doing one per person, others one for the family, others had just said yes. I was sure of at least twenty-five. It could easily go up from there. Should it be a full sized quilt? Probably. I finally decided on ten inch squares and decided we could make the other decisions after we got the squares.
The next problem was to choose the common fabric.
I thought something plain would be best, allowing the most creative uses.
Aunt Esther had said a simple muslin would do. I went to the nearest
fabric store and purchased several yards of their best looking muslin.
Although I have made a few quilts for my children over the years, I had used whatever materials I could find, beg or afford and put them together any old way I could figure out. My mother had set a fine example of making-do and making the most of whatever one has. She made dresses for my sister and me from printed feed sacks, trimmed with bits of eyelet and rick-rack. We looked as pretty as anybody else at Sunday School. This making-do ability is one of the gifts I most treasure from my mother, and I'm sure it fits well in the history of quilt making, but I learned that toadies quilters have definite preferences when it comes to selecting materials.
I called Aunt Esther to ask if I should wash the fabric before I cut it and found that I had not made the best choice. My muslin was polyester. She assured me that it would do, but I didn't want something that would do for Mom's quilt. I wanted it to be just right. I figured I could find other uses for the muslin, found a quilt store and with the help of the clerk selected a nice white cotton fabric.
I washed, pressed, and cut it and sent pieces to all who had indicated an interest, asking that they make ten inch squares, ten and a half to allow for seams. It was mid-December by then, and I knew no one would be delighted to get yet another thing to deal with during the holidays. I suggested that the project be set aside until January, and the squares sent to me by March first.
Meanwhile, I had designed and purchased fabric for my square and one for my husband. Mom and I had taken our only trip out of the country together when we went with my daughter Sarah to visit the family in Sweden with whom Sarah had lived for a year as a foreign exchange student. It was a wonderful trip and one of the things we had most enjoyed was the wildflowers. I found a pattern called "around-the-world", which consisted of squares set at a diagonal to the large square. I believe there was also a pattern to the placement of colors in the square, but since we had not gone all around the world, but just to Sweden, I figured it was fine to change that. I simply alternated squares of a floral print pattern with white squares on which I embroidered Swedish wildflowers.
For my husband's square I appliquéd a moon-shaped bowl overflowing with popcorn onto a starry blue background. My husband is a great popcorn eater and Mom always keeps it on hand for him. When we were dating he said, as he scrubbed at one of my pots, "You've heard about guys who leave a trail of broken hearts? I leave a trail of burned popcorn pots." I was later able to tell him, "The trail ends here." But he has burned a pot or two at my mother's since then!
In the next weeks I had several calls asking for more fabric. Aunt Esther needed more, and so did my sister-in-law Lisa because each of her girls wanted to do their own square. A quilting friend called to ask for another piece and more time. She was doing an appliquéd Teddy bear like the ones on a baby quilt the group had done for her and had used a piece of Wonder-Under that was so heavy she could not get her needle through it. "It's going to come out terrible," she said, "and for your mother this has to be good." I went back to the quilt store for more fabric and sent it out.
I almost had my two squares done when the others began to arrive. Uncle Bob and Aunt Betty had moved to Florida where they spent a lot of time with Aunt Esther and the three of them sent a package of seven squares! Aunt Esther had made a "sister's choice" patch, an Ohio star, and one which was a crossword puzzle including the names of everyone in the family--forty names using tiny half-inch squares! Aunt Betty's square was an appliquéd Santa, which Mom collects and they frequently shop for together. Uncle Bob's square was a printed cow sewn into a frame as if looking in the window, something he remembered from their childhood. They had also had a Xerox made of their parents' wedding photo, beautifully framed in fabric. This one ended up in the center of our quilt.
Aunt Fran's package included seven squares made with machine appliqué along with three made by her grown children, one embroidered and two done with fabric paint. Of Aunt Fran's seven one was for herself, one for Uncle Don, her husband and Mom's brother who died a few years ago, another for a deceased sister, and the others for two other brothers and a nephew's family.
An envelope with three beautiful patches from Mom's fellow quilters Helen May, Bernice Knight, and Rose Bell arrived. Gerrie Edington's scrappy star block arrived separately and a short time later I got Laura Mugno's patch. She had included handprints of her baby, another recipient of a Teddy bear quilt.
I didn't have any of my sisters' and brothers' squares yet, nor the ones from my three daughters, but I was finding myself with a very busy spring schedule anyway. For one thing, my oldest daughter was planning a May wedding, and I had scheduled a number of trips to speak and visit schools and bookstores as an author and illustrator of children's books.
One of those trips took me to California in March where I visited Mom. As we sat and chatted, and planned a family wedding party for my daughter Bethany, I found myself looking through her quilting books and magazines and asking questions. I confessed to an idea I had been resisting to try illustrating a book with quilts, an idea which Mom was more than happy to help me with. I wasn't lying, I would like to illustrate a book with quilts, but it was also a good excuse to ask questions! I managed to borrow her "mor-mor" pattern which my daughter Sarah wanted to use for her square, mor-mor being Swedish for mother's mother.
Nelda also took advantage of my being in town. She came over one morning so I could draw a profile of her cocker-spaniel, Joey. She told mom she wanted to do a wall hanging, but I knew she was planning a square, reminiscent of a quilt mom had done using childhood profiles of each of us. Nelda called later to ask a sewing question which I had to try to answer with Mom sitting across the table. I said it was a little tricky and Nelda said, "Well, it's not fair for you to give me a sewing project I can't ask Mom about, especially when she has both of my sewing machines!" We all felt so sneaky!
By May I had twenty-five finished squares and an offer from Aunt Fran to help put the quilt together after her retirement in August. I had started another square myself and knew of fifteen that people were still working on or planning. I sent out a letter to extend the deadline to the end of August. I heard that Sue had started her squares which was a good sign. Helen May called to say since there was time she had another quilter who would like to participate, Jackie Cooksey.
June, July and August passed. We made plans for getting together at Aunt Fran's to put the quilt together. The tricky part of that was not to keep it a complete secret from Mom, but not give her enough time to say, "I'll come, too." I mentioned that we were hoping to go to Ohio to see my Grandma Grossnickle, but let Mom get her fall calendar pretty full before I let her know our plans were definite. I even managed to schedule some author appearances into the trip, including an evening at the school named for my maternal grandfather Joe B. Putman, who was principal there for many years including those that I attended as a third and fourth grader. Mom thought it was just a happy coincidence that Aunt Esther, Uncle Bob and Aunt Betty just happened to make a trip that overlapped mine. Too bad she hadn't known, but then she was meeting them for a quilt show in Houston in October, and coming to see us for Thanksgiving.
As the end of August neared my brother John called to apologize and say he and Lisa and their girls would get their squares done soon. Nana, my brother Joe's wife called and asked, "Did Sue get her squares done yet? She didn't? Oh, good! I'm going to finish ours and put them in the mail tomorrow. Don't you tell her." We have a little friendly competition running in our family for favorite daughter status.
My cousin Cheryl wrote an apology and said she hadn't even started yet and wouldn't get it done. I later found out that she had indeed started but had selected something more complex than she could complete. Aunt Betty, her mother, did another square to take it's place. Aunt Esther told me that her daughter Karen had misplaced the fabric. I sent her more. No word from sister Sue, or Eileen Scates who started over with new fabric, or Jackie Cooksey, the quilter added later.
Two other squares that had not arrived were to be done by my grown daughters. Bethany had been obviously occupied with her wedding and setting up their little house for a coming baby. As mother of the bride I had been involved, but since both girls were in California and me in Pennsylvania, a lot of the wedding preparation had fallen on her sister Sarah. I had converted the mor-mor pattern for Sarah to use to make a ten inch square, but she lost it when her husband was accepted into an art school in Rhode Island and they suddenly disrupted their household to move across the country. I converted the pattern again, this time I keeping a copy, but she didn't her square made until September when she and her husband spent a few days with us on their way to Rhode Island.
Lassen, having finished the square she planned, spent time with my mother in August, along with her cousin Crystal. Mom taught them to do paper piecing, which Lassen was then able to show Sarah. It worked ideally to make the four small mor-mor patches Sarah needed for her square. Lassen, inspired by Crystal who was making her own quilt with Grandma's help, was also very attracted to a "kaleidoscope" pattern, but thought it would be too hard. Mom helped her make one, which just happens to be ten inches, and Lassen added to the quilt.
We were into September and Bethany had not started her square yet. She knew she wanted to do something that included her baby, which was due in October and would be Mom's first great-grandchild. I finally said, "If you aren't going to get your square done, let me know and I'll do one for you." She didn't even hesitate. "I'm not going to get it done." While we still on the phone I looked up and saw my nesting dolls sitting in the window and got the idea to do the four generations as dolls, one inside the other. "Do it," she said and I did.
So I now had thirty-three squares, plus Aunt Fran had gotten one from a high-school friend of Mom's. I was pretty sure of Lasses three and Sue's four, and the one from my cousin Karen. That brought us to forty-two. If the other two quilters' squares came in, that made forty-four. The next even multiple was forty-nine. Aunt Fran had an idea for two more squares. I decided to do one to represent my dad's mother who would have liked to do one herself, but couldn't because of blindness and arthritis. Aunt Betty did the one to replace Cheryl's. Aunt Fran said, "Don't worry, we'll make more if we need them."
I didn't worry about having enough squares, but I did worry about people who wanted their squares to be included not getting them to us on time. I didn't want to pressure anyone, but thought maybe I should remind them. We did have a real deadline this time. I called Sue and Lisa and told them I'd be leaving for Ohio on September 21st. Lisa said hers would be in the mail in a couple days. Sue said she'd get started. I said, "I heard you started a long time ago." "I did," she said. "We had two almost done, but we just made them the size of the fabric you sent. Then I looked at your letter and it said they were supposed to be ten inches so we have to start over." The pieces I sent out were roughly 12 by 14 inches.
I called Eileen. She thanked me for the reminder, had been dealing with a lot of family things and promised she would get the square done. "I count on those Tuesday morning quilter's meetings to do little stuff like this," she said, "but your mother is the only one who NEVER misses so I haven't been able to work on it!"
I called Helen May, who had given me Jackie's name. "I hate to bother her," I said, "but if she's working on something I don't want to leave her out." Helen gave me her number and encouraged me to call. "She'll appreciate hearing from you. She's a great one for not finishing things. We were joking that you could just put in a blank square and write 'Jackie's block goes here'. Your mother would get it."
I did call Jackie who was glad to hear from me and said she would try to get it in the mail soon. I told her the day I'd be leaving.
Now there was less than a week before I was to leave. Eileen's square arrived. I called Sue and Lisa again. Lisa said hers were in the mail. I told Sue to mail hers directly to Aunt Fran's because they wouldn't get to me on time. We were leaving on Thursday. No squares in my mail on Monday. None on Tuesday or on Wednesday. Finally, on Thursday, as we were packing the car the mail carrier delivered Lisa's three squares and one from Jackie. Great! Except the squares from Lisa were done as Sue had started doing hers, on the fabric as I had sent it. They were bigger than ten inches! They were done with fabric paint, very clever and charming, and included a border that Lisa said we could cut off if we needed to. Oh well. Too late to worry about it now. We hopped in the car and headed for Ohio, arriving early afternoon on Friday.
So there we were with forty-three finished squares, me working on one and Sue's four still to come. We spread them out, arranged and rearranged. The variety was wonderful. The stories they told even more wonderful. It was so exciting! Clearly, we had to keep the overall design simple. We discussed colors for sashing, border and backing. Most of us had been thinking blue, since Mom has a lot of blue in her house, but that didn't seem right. Aunt Esther had a piece of black with just a hint of print in it that was very nice. It gave good separation and let each square have it's own identity.
We figured out sizes and fabric requirements and while Aunt Fran started dinner, the rest of us went shopping. The best stores were too far for that first trip, and the ones we tried didn't have what we were looking for so we came home empty handed. We ate, continued to arrange and rearrange, waiting until we thought Sue, on west coast time, might be home. We left nasty messages on her machine and more messages on Nelda's
"When are you planning on giving this to your mother?"
Aunt Fran asked.
"I was thinking about trying to have a big party
for her on her birthday in February," I said. "Want to come?"
"I can do that." Aunt Fran said, her eyes lighting
"I'll be there," Aunt Esther agreed.
Uncle Bob nodded and Aunt Betty smiled. They're the real travelers of the family, although Mom and Aunt Esther have been keeping up with them pretty well.
"I've just been so excited to get this quilt together," Aunt Fran said. "Now I can't wait to give it to her."
We still needed one more square to make a seven by seven block quilt. We came up with several ideas and Aunt Fran got out her scrap box. With much input, Aunt Betty started a coffee mug square. We tried Sue again, all of us shouting, "We need your squares!" Meanwhile we kept arranging and rearranging the blocks spread out on the table. Every once in a while one of us would go look and make a change. I woke up in the wee hours of the morning and decided I needed to go switch a couple of blocks. Nelda's dogs were looking off the edge of the quilt and that would never do.
Gary and I had a date to sign books at a children's bookstore on Saturday morning. While we were gone the others went out and purchased fabric. A nice muted black print for the sashings, a gray print for the backing and a large bold floral on a black background for the border. I had misgivings about the border fabric. It had quite a bit of pink in it, and I was seeing lots of red in the squares. I also thought the bold pattern might be too busy. I hated to say anything when they were all so happy with their purchase, but they caught on anyway, Uncle Bob first I think.
"If you don't like it, we don't have to use it," Aunt Esther said.
"But I think you'll like it," said Aunt Fran. "I really think it's going to work."
"Let's just put the blocks together first and then try it," I said. "I could be wrong."
Sue had called at nine AM, six California time. She hadn't even finished her squares yet! Nelda also called. She said Sue told her that I had yelled at her. "Anna never yells at me." We can get a little rowdy in our fun sometimes, but we're not exactly a yelling kind of family. And I don't think I really yelled that time, at least not anymore than anybody else. I just happened to be the one holding the phone. Sue said she'd get the squares done and FedEx them that afternoon.
We told Nelda that the party plans were up to them in California. She said, "No problem." She'd just enlist Mom's help in planning a surprise party for her husband Jack, whose birthday is the day after Mom's.
Aunt Esther and Uncle Bob trimmed all the squares to as near to ten and a half inches as they could get them. Some were a bit shy. Lisa's too large. We figured a way to make them the right height and just a bit wide, deciding we could adjust the vertical sashings to accommodate the difference. We also decided that Sue's four squares could go in the bottom row, so we could go ahead and start putting the rest together. Uncle Bob made a chart of all the squares, in case they should get mixed up.
Aunt Esther and Uncle Bob cut sashings. Uncle Walter, another of Mom's brothers and his wife came for the afternoon and helped supervise. Aunt Fran sewed and Aunt Betty pressed. Along with giving her input, Lassen worked on a scrapbook which includes a copy of each square and anything its creator sent along about it, as well as all our correspondence and notes, Uncle Bob's chart and so on. By Saturday evening three strips were put together.
But Sue's family hadn't finished their squares in time to get them shipped! We wouldn't have them until Tuesday. I was flying out Thursday morning.
Aunt Fran holds to a family rule that allows no sewing on Sundays, so we didn't. We visited instead. I took my grandmother to have lunch with her sister in a nursing home and returned to a large gathering family gathering. The quilt pieces were displayed on Aunt Fran's bed and admired by all. Karen put in her opinion that the border fabric was going to be too bold.
Monday, Lassen and Gary drove back to Pennsylvania, and the rest of us went back to our sewing. It took some careful doing, with some of the seams so close, and we made some use of the frog tool, as Aunt Esther called it. "Rip-it. Rip-it!" By evening we had completed six rows. To go any further we needed Sue's squares.
On Tuesday morning Uncle Bob drove me into Kentucky where I was scheduled to visit a school. He came to my assistance when I ran into technical difficulty with my slide projector and I really enjoyed spending the time with him. We stopped for lunch and returned to find the ladies sitting on the porch.
"Well, did the squares get here?" we asked.
"Go look," they said.
I hurried inside, with Uncle Bob at my heels. The aunts followed. Sue's squares had indeed arrived and the last row was done.
Aunt Fran told us how that they had just finished
breakfast clean-up when the Federal Express truck drove up. She ran
to meet the driver. "Must be money in here," he joked.
"Nope," she'd answered. "Something better. Quilt blocks!"
"And look," Aunt Betty said, holding up Xeroxed
copies of the four squares and the FedEx envelope. "We even got the
copies made for the scrapbook."
"So now," Aunt Fran said, spreading the border fabric
along one edge. "We think you may be right about the pink.
What do you think?"
"I think I'm right," I said. Uncle Bob nodded.
"I still think we need some color in the border
though," said Aunt Esther.
"Guess we'd better go shopping," said Aunt Betty. We carefully folded our quilt top and climbed into Uncle Bob's van. When we parked Uncle Bob went to check out something down the street. I had to check the whole store since it was the first time I'd been there. The other three immediately concentrated on the shelves of fabrics with black backgrounds.
One of us would pull out a bolt of fabric and another say, "Might work. We can try it." As the clerks watched with slightly worried expressions, it wasn't too long before closing time, we pulled quite a selection of fabrics off the shelves. Then we took over a counter and tried each one, sorting them into piles we called likely, possible, or not a chance. We hadn't gotten through too many when Uncle Bob returned to add his opinion. One of the clerks saw that we had a serious choice to make and got involved in bringing us more possibilities.
We finally got it narrowed down to three, maybe even two, with one holding out for the third choice. We'd look at one, then the other, then one another, and say, "Well?"
Finally I said, "Which one would Mom choose?"
"Oh, Ruth would choose that one," Aunt Betty said
without the least hesitation. None of us had any doubt that she was
"Then I think we have our decision," said Aunt Esther.
Again we agreed, purchased our fabric and went home.
By the time it was washed and dried we had had our
dinner. Soon the border strips were cut and sewn in place.
Then we admired. We were so pleased. Everything seemed just right.
We had put the portrait of my grandparents in the center, arranging out
from there, attempting to keep the strong colors, and white backgrounds
spread as evenly as we could and it all worked.
"And it's been so much fun," Aunt Fran said. We all agreed.
"It's too bad Mom has had to miss out on the fun we've had doing this for her," I said. "She would love being a part of this."
Everyone nodded to that, too, and Aunt Esther said,
"She is a part of this."
We took pictures and admired our work some more.
The next morning Aunt Fran had a meeting to attend. I brought my grandmother over to spend the morning and have lunch with us. She sat at a little distance at first, drinking her coffee and watching as we sewed the three panels together for the back. Soon she had taken a closer chair and then, in spite of not seeing well, she was up helping guide those yards of fabric across that big table into the sewing machine. I snapped a picture. I knew Mom would like to know that her mother-in-law had had a hand in on the quilt making, too.
We hit one small snag when the bobbin ran out of thread and with Aunt Fran gone it took a while for us to figure out how to wind another, but by the time she returned for lunch, we were done.
That afternoon we took our work to Joy and her husband who do very nice machine quilting. The others had all been there before, had in fact taken Mom who was so impressed with their work that she had sent one of her own unfinished quilts for them to do. Joy had later received a quilt from Rose, one of Mom's friends and the one Mom had helped Crystal do. At our prodding Joy went through her stacks and pulled them out to show us.
We admired Joy's work, had fun showing ours off, and selected the quilting pattern that would be easiest for them to do around some of the special features on a few of our blocks. Then we drove away without it, all feeling a bit as if we were abandoning our baby. We went out to a nice dinner in honor of Aunt Fran's birthday and the next day I continued on my book tour to Washington and California, where I also attended the birth of my first grandchild.
Aunt Fran would get the quilt back in a couple months and would then bind it. I made a signature patch for the back on which we had decided to say simply, "Made with love by the family of Ruth Grossnickle and presented on her birthday in February, 1996." The only job we had left to do was to keep the secret for another four months!!
I'm not sure how well we've done, but we'll soon find out!
PS: As her birthday approached Mom suspected something was up, but was
very surprised to have long-distance relatives show up for a party, and
even more surprised by her quilt.