Big thanks to DeSoto Magazine (desotomag.com) for using my quilt story in the Reflection section. If you aren't familiar with this publication, you should be. They could not use my full version since space was limited, so here it is for those living in Tate County.
I am finally putting closure on a love affair and sin that started when I was seventeen. One rainy afternoon, my daddy, Hayley Dandridge, and I were looking around in my grandparents’(Cathey S. and Ollie May Dupuy Dandridge) attic in their 1856 farmhouse in eastern Tate County, and I found buried deep in an old trunk two quilts.
One was the grandmother’s fan pattern and had been signed by family and friends in the small rural community of Barr in Tate County, Mississippi. I immediately recognized its value and beauty and asked if I could have it.
The other was a red, white and blue quilt with stars on it. It wasn’t in great condition like the other one. Daddy said I could have both quilts and the trunk. I treasured them, but did not appreciate the star quilt until after I retired two years ago.
I committed quilter’s sin. That quilt went with me to college. Since it wasn’t in perfect condition, I really used it. I threw it across the foot of my bed in the dorm.
I distinctly remember sitting on that quilt outside at what is now Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., listening to one of the Winter boys—Johnny or Edgar (can’t remember which) sing “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo,” and “Tobacco Road.”
Wasn’t that what you were supposed to do with quilts in the 1970s? Who can forget that famous photograph of the couple, draped with a dirt-stained quilt on that muddy hill at Woodstock? It captured the moment and the generation.
When I married I stuck the quilt in a closet, looked at it every few years, and thought, “It’s a shame. I need to do something with it.” When my children were little it was a pallet on the floor for them to rest on or watch TV.
I had always promised myself that when I retired I would learn to quilt. In my job as director of Public Relations at a local community college, I wrote a goodbye letter to all the editors who had run our news during the years I had been director. One editor wrote back and said, “You need a hobby like quilting. We are starting a beginning quilting class. Come join us.”
Ah Ha! My opportunity. So I went to the tiny community of Harmontown to the Free Springs United Methodist Church basement to learn from five women who made me feel welcomed but at the same time dumb as dirt.
The more I learned about quilt history, technique, hand quilting, machine quilting, patterns, color selections and terminology, the more I thought about the red, white and blue star quilt in my closet.
After a quilting session one day I came home and unfolded it and was amazed at how much it had deteriorated. The cotton batting was showing through the designs on the stars. It was raveling, fading and was a general mess.
Brave new quilter that I was I got out my new rotary cutter and cut out the good blocks and put the good, bad and ugly back in the closet.
Last summer, two years later, it must have spoken to me. I got it out again this time determined that I could save some of it. This project has taken me down the path of history , forcing me to do some long-put-off research.
Turns out, the quilt was made in the Lemoyne Star pattern. It was entirely hand-sewn—the top and the quilting, which was done in the Baptist Fan pattern. After looking at books on fabric dating, borrowed from one of the quilt group, I estimated the quilt to have been made between 1880 and 1900. That guess was based on the fabric samples used in the quilt, the time period the pattern was popular and information I found on vintage quilts. Then I really felt guilty. How had I put this precious piece down on the ground and stuffed it into closets?
I knew my grandmother probably had not made it. She just wasn’t the sewing kind of grandmother. You would more likely find her tending the animals or working in her garden that provided most of the food for my granddaddy, my daddy and uncle, male cousins and the farm workers. It must have been made by one of my elderly cousins.
I can just imagine my relatives, sitting in the enclosed hallway of that dog-trot style house, wearing their house dresses, clunky working shoes, spectacles perched on the ends of their noses, quilting. It would have been hot without air conditioning, but the tall ceilings would have helped to ease the pain of the Mississippi heat.
They would have talked about the crops, the weather, their children and their men. No one worked outside the home, but boy did they work from dawn to dusk in their respective homes and farms.
Learning all this, I was really overcome with guilt at the treatment of the quilt. It was so deteriorated, that I had to “unquilt” it. The batting was just rough spun cotton, lumpy, stained and smelling of old house and mouse droppings.
Every stitch that joined the front to the back had been done with such uniformity and beauty that I was simply amazed. After I unquilted a few blocks, I repaired them and backed them with another fabric for stability. Then they were pieced together to form wall hangings using reproduction Civil War fabrics.
My goal was to give each of my three first cousins on the Dandridge side a piece of the quilt that had been found in our grandmother’s attic. The first hanging was delivered to my male cousin who was in the process of building a rustic-type home. He carefully crafted a rough-cut cedar frame and put the entire fabric piece under glass, illuminated by a light fixture. Success! I had saved a part of the star quilt.
Next I sent several of the best quilt blocks to my female cousin in California. Since she sews, I thought I’d let her do her own design with it. I also enclosed some of the reproduction fabric as well as some of the muslin from the backing. Success No. 2!—Only one more cousin to go. (Edward)
I just finished a hanging for our home. Every time I walk by it, casually draped over the door of an old Southern Pie Safe, I will remember how long it took me to appreciate it. I loved it all along.
Did I really commit the sin of neglect of a Southern treasure? After all, quilts can hang in the Smithsonian Museum as folk art, fine textile examples or they can cover the back of a couch or the foot of a bed. A quilt can be a source of warmth and, later a child can play peek-a-boo by hiding under it. Quilts can also be used to cover a couple on a rainy hillside at Woodstock.
Whatever you do with your quilt, I want you to realize the worth of it—from the handiwork and fabric selection to the particular picture it paints of a certain place and time. All quilts have one thing in common—they evoke feelings of warmth and comfort.
The old house burned in 1980. So I guess I saved that quilt twice, but not without a little sin in between.