In an era where young women show their affection for friends by posting blurry photos of them on Facebook, the traditional practice of making a friendship quilt seems incredibly “old school.” But I’m an old-school kind of gal and I love being the current caretaker of a Depression-era friendship quilt, a lasting and lovely example of the power wrought by “loving hands at home.”
This is Grandma Van’s quilt.
Orvada Hartman Van Landingham was my husband’s grandmother. She made wonderful quilts but she didn’t make this one. It was made for her by the women of her Texas community, as she and her husband prepared to move to California during the Great Depression.
Imagine how hard that must’ve been for a young woman, to leave everyone and everything she knew and move into the unknown. And she wasn’t moving because she had a great new job waiting, or because she’d always wanted to live in California. She was moving to escape, like so many others, the Dust-Bowl-ruined Great Plains, and just hoping she and her husband could make a better life in the mythical West.
Friendship quilts have been popular since the mid-1800s in the United States and probably evolved out of the pastime of the communal quilting bee. Some of the quilts are more properly called signature quilts, because they were made to raise money for a church or charity; people would pay to have their signature on the quilt and sometimes made their block or sometimes just signed it. These quilts could then be raffled, to raise even more money.
Grandma Van’s quilt is pretty typical of friendship quilts of the Depression Era. I know it was finished about 1931, since one of the blocks has that date embroidered on it. Each woman would’ve made a block and written or embroidered her name on it. Then all the blocks were sewn together and quilted by the members of the group.
According to very good website, Hart Cottage Quilts, typical fabrics in the late 1920s and early ’30 were heavy on new “sherbet pastels.” Because manufacturers had limited dyes to work with, the different shades of any given color coordinated well, meaning that, for Depression-era quilters, it would’ve been hard to make a “wrong” fabric choice!
Grandma Van’s quilt must have been cherished—it came to her grandson and me in wonderful condition. The names embroidered on the quilt fascinate me. My New England ancestors were Ruths and Kathleens and Lydias. Orvada’s friends were Effie, Ona, Novis, and Melia—such exotic names! And the older women who participated maintained their dignity and social status by signing themselves as “Mrs.” And “Granny.”
So, Grandma Van and her husband Guy took their quilt and their other meager belongings and left Texas. We don’t know how their journey went, whether it was fairly uneventful or pure Tom Joad. They ended up in Tuolumne City, California, where Guy found work in a lumber mill and he and Orvada raised three children.
I can just imagine Orvada bringing this quilt out at times she felt lonely or frightened in her new world. Maybe she wrapped it around her shoulders and thought of her old friends and, in so doing, found comfort.
To call a quilt like this a metaphoric hug may be a timeworn cliché but, hey, the quilt itself is time worn . . . and that just adds to its beauty. Sometimes the old ways are the best ways.