The Quilting Bee: Natural Dyes
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 3, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
I remember quilting bees. They were a part of my life long before my dad came home from the war. My grandfather was the only man left with the family during WWII, so I grew up with a house full of women. The women of the families had to do all they could to survive without their men, and that included planting, harvesting and putting up food for winter. They were also responsible for keeping their families clothed and warm during the cold winter months. It was probably different in different parts of our country, but I grew up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in southeast Kentucky, and that's the source of my childhood memories.
All the women in my family were quilters, and they used every scrap of fabric they could get hold of, including pieces of clothing that were very nearly worn out, or had been outgrown. When my mom died a few years ago, I was fortunate to receive more than 50 quilts that had been pieced and quilted by the older members of my family. Some were so old and worn they had ragged edges, but there was a saying in my family: "Old quilts wrap you in love." I do believe that.
The quilting bees were held at the home of one of the matriarchs, and in my case it was usually Gramma Ell's house. She was my mom's mother. The ladies had spent the winter piecing the quilts, and in very late winter before planting season started, they would meet at one house or the other to quilt all the quilts that everyone brought. The quilt frames had been built by my grandfather and made to roll from one side to the other as each edge was quilted, finishing in the middle. It could be done in one day if there were enough quilters. It wasn't unusual for a quilting bee to last just one week and every quilter's quilt would be done.
Since the quilt frame was held up to quilting height by the rungs of a ladder back chair in each corner, there was a lot of room for a little girl to play underneath the quilt in its frames. My mother was teaching, but both my grandmothers had quilts, so they were both there. I sat under the quilt frames and played with the thimbles and the lengths of strings that were dropped at all the feet that surrounded me. There were many feet, all wearing big heavy black shoes that laced up and cotton stockings that rolled down. I started flipping thimbles toward their feet. "Lawdy, Ell, get that child away from my feet!" That was Aldie talking, and she was a hateful woman. She let me know that she had two older daughters and never would they have ever thought of flipping thimbles at anybody's feet. I had to listen to that until I finally started school.
The winter I was eight I had a tonsillectomy, and happened to be home from school recovering. During that time Aunt Bett, who was not a quilter, taught me to make dyes from plants. I had a stash of red, blue and yellow dyes. Paper must have been scarce because Ninna gave me squares of muslin to dye. The red dye came from pokeberries (Phytolacca americana) , the blue came from wild indigo (Batisia), and the yellow came from great mullein (Verbascum thapsus). Most often I used the dyes on my hair or whatever part of me was uncovered, but at that time it was too cold for wet hair or for nudity, so I used it to dye the muslin squares. I didn't stop with just the dying, I also painted pictures on the muslin with the dyes. I was a great painter of daisies, red ones, blue ones and yellows. I had a terrible time without green, though, until I accidently dipped my yellow into my blue, and then I had green. Ninna decided that the painted and dyed squares were "fit for a quilt." And so she pieced them into one.
I must have been home from school for awhile because I went to the next quilting bee, again at Gramma Ell's house. They decided to quilt Ninna's quilt top with my dyed squares first. Old Aldie was there. "Lawdy mercy Ell, what's awrong with this muslin. I'd use this stuff for cleanin' rags. It ain't fit for a quilt."
I was not under the quilt, I was sitting between my two grandmothers just watching them sew. My throat was still sore, and it hurt to talk. I looked from one grandmother to the other, thinking I might cry. Granny Ninna, the quiet one said: "Aldie, if you don't like me and Sharon's quilt, you don't be quiltin' on it." Gramma Ell said: "Aldie, you are one mean old woman. Sharon painted this quilt, and she did better than you or yours could do, so you just go on outta that door the same way you came in." Old Aldie got up in a huff, but she only went into the kitchen for awhile, and the ladies kept on quilting.
I wish I still had that quilt, but it would be very old by now, and it was made from used fabric to begin with. I still like to make dyes with pokeberries, because they can be boiled down in water until it becomes a brilliant red dye. It takes a lot of berries and a lot of boiling, but when I finally strain that red liquid to get all the berry fragments out of it, I always remember my first red tattoo, the one I painted with pokeberry dye on my belly button. And I always remember old Aldie.
I guess I should never have flipped that thimble at her ugly feet.
The photographs are from my own collection. The quilts appear by chronological age.
The thumbnail is a quilt made by my mother from old scraps of velvet, some embroidery featuring birds and flowers which were both among her favorites. It is tacked, not quilted, but is held in place by cotton thread tied on the back at each corner of fabric to hold the batting in place. Because it has no pattern it is called a crazy quilt.
The second photo is a quilt done by my Gramma Ell during the mid 40's. It was quilted at a Quilting Bee, and some of the fabric used is from my little girl dresses.
The appliqued umbrella girl was made by Mom, also during the 40's and was made to fit my small bed. It also contains fabric from my dresses, including the red plaid in the photo.
The "Tree of Life" is an applique made by my Gramma Ell, and it was quilted by my mother.
The last quilt, the Rose of Sharon, is an appliqued quilt made by my Gramma Ell for my college graduation. The pattern might be also known by another name, but I like to think it was named for me.