The morning I read the Rag Coat to my kids, we all piled onto the couch right after breakfast. I let them stay in their jammies, and we spread this old colorful quilt over our laps. After the story was over, and I recomposed myself…the Rag Coat requires tissues(that’s my Amazonaffiliate link), and I told my kids the story of our family quilt as it was passed on to me when I was a young woman. I’ll tell it in my own words, but this is the essence of the story my Grandmother passed on to me.
When my Nanny passed away (my Great Grandmother) she had a stack of old somewhat tattered quilts, and it was important to Grandmama that each great-grandchild got one. Each quilt in the stack had a different pattern. Some of the quilts were soft gentle colors. This is the one I chose. I liked the polka dots and the blue, and all of the bright colors.
Grandmama ran her hand over the quilt fabrics, and pointed to one, “This one here was a dress I had in the first grade. This was one of Daddy’s shirts. When I was a little girl, my Grandmother Mamie made this quilt out of the scraps of our old clothes.
Most of these were feedsack fabrics. Back then, we were so poor that we couldn’t afford to go to the store and buy fabric on bolts. So Daddy would take me with him to buy feed, and let me and Jean pick out the feed sacks. They came in all different prints. Mama would use the fabric to make our dresses. When our dresses were too worn through, she and Mamie would cut the buttons off and save them for the next dress in a tin. Then they would cut the clothes into scraps. The worst pieces would become our rags, and the nicer scraps were used to make quilts.”
Mamie lived with us when she was an old woman. She had long white hair that my Mama would brush out at the end of every day. She was my Daddy’s Mama. She was still alive when your Daddy was a little boy. But by then Mamie was very old, and a little crazy. She said she could see ‘the boogerman’ and would tell your Daddy that the boogerman was coming to get him. So he was scared of her. Mamie quilted to stay busy. She hand stitched and pieced each little square of fabric on the top of this quilt. Thousands and thousands of stitches connected all of these little pieces of fabric into beautiful patterns.
A quilt had to made from three parts: a colorful top, a warm center, and a strong backing. As pretty as the top was, it wasn’t very strong or very warm. So they would cut up the plain white feed sacks to make the backing. Stitching the pretty top to a backing made the quilt strong. But a quilt also needed to be warm. So Mamie would send us out to get cotton out of the fields. She would make batting to go between the layers.
When you pick the cotton from the plant, it’s filled with seeds. Sharp seeds that are hard to pull out. She would sit and work the cotton with wooden combs that had very hard steel teeth. The steel teeth would scrape, scrape, scrape the seeds out of that cotton. As the seeds would fall out, the soft cotton would mat into the teeth of the comb. She would work the combs over the cotton over and over until she got a thick pad of cotton that she’d lift off of the comb. This was the warm layer called “batting” that goes inside and is stitched between the front and back of the quilt.
Then would come more stitches. Thousands and thousands more. She took the beautiful colorful quilt top, and laid it over that small square of cotton. Then she would press the back over the cotton and stitch it all together with a needle and thread, making a sandwich between the top, the soft batting, and the plain fabric back of the quilt. She would do this over and over, creating small squares of combed cotton and tacking them into place until the quilt was finally done. Now it was beautiful. Now it was warm. Now it was strong. The colorful top, soft cotton, and plain white fabric were all one piece now. It was our family quilt.”
“When I was a young mother, I didn’t appreciate all of the work and history that was in these quilts, so I let your aunts and your Daddy take them out in the yard and build forts with them. I wish I’d have known better.”
This quilt is no new. It’s not fancy, but it’s full of cotton from your Great-Great Grandaddy’s fields, and it’s full of hard work, and summertime dresses, and aprons, and work shirts, and forts made in the yard, and stitches. It’s full of the history of our family. And that makes it one of the most precious and valuable things that we own.
*special thanks to my cousin, Josh and Rachel A. for the use of the cotton field photos.