Sew Many Quilts; So Little Time

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Mar 14, 2015

“When life gives you scraps, make a quilt.”

Every now and then I like to stop by the old quilt rack hanging on an upstairs wall in the old farmhouse where we live here on the University of Valley Forge campus. The oldest part of the house was built somewhere around the mid-1800s so an old quilt hanging on that wall fits perfectly.

Just a glance at that old quilt with its yellow, pink and blue patches transports me back to my childhood when our family would visit the maker of that quilt, Mary Longenecker, my maternal grandmother whom we called Maw Maw. 

After Maw Maw and her husband, whom we called Paw Paw, retired from their farm, they bought a small one-story gray limestone house fronting on Route 422 just east of Lebanon, Pennsylvania. I will never forget Maw Maw’s amazing petunias. They literally spread nearly half-way across her sidewalk. 

But the highlight of any visit was when she took us down into the basement to show us the quilts she was working on. Maw Maw was a life-time quilter. There in the middle of that small room she had a quilting table where she worked on her craft for hours and hours, with one of her latest handiworks evident for us to view. Next to it, along the wall, she had folded many other quilts in various stages of progress.

In her soft and gentle manner she described each one with its unique design and for whom she was making it. For years she was part of a group of women quilters at the Midway Church of the Brethren where each week they met and together made what we later learned were those popular Pennsylvania Dutch quilts. 

How I wish I could sit down with her today and ask her a million questions about her life, but also about her world of quilting. When you are young the richness of one’s heritage just doesn’t matter as much as it does later. 

It was Maw Maw who made me that quilt on our wall just as she did for each of her other 26 grandchildren. I am so glad that she lived long enough for Evie to meet her and be able to experience what I am trying to describe in this column. 

But it was also Maw Maw who introduced me to Guideposts, the inspirational magazine founded by Norman Vincent Peale. Through that magazine and through Peale’s writings, especially “The Power of Positive Thinking,” my entire life was transformed. 

I didn’t realize that Maw Maw’s craftsmanship was part of a rich history that goes back to the 12th century, during the time of the Crusaders when quilts were used as a piece of protective armor. Russia holds the oldest example of a decorative quilted carpet which was found in a Mongolian cave and is now kept in a museum in Saint Petersburg.

The history of quilting in the United States has sometimes been called “herstory” since the stories told by quilts are usually women’s stories written in fabric rather than in words. From the first colonists to before, during and after the Civil War and throughout the 20th century, quilts reflected the broader landscape of what was happening in our country.

Maw Maw’s quilting took place in the rich tradition of the Anabaptists, some of whom are Amish. The Amish discourage individual expression but quilt making has allowed Amish women to express their creative natures without giving offense. 

The art of quilting was once extremely important and a large part of the process of a young girl becoming a woman. The creation of a quilt makes these, what someone called “fabric sandwiches,” more than just a warm blanket; they are priceless heirlooms passed down from generation to generation. 

Isn’t it amazing how an old quilt can warm the heart as well as the body?

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville, Pa. 
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