Loving Hands of Friends: Grandma Van’s Quilt

IMG_2079In 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.

grandma van quiltOrvada 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.

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57 thoughts on “Loving Hands of Friends: Grandma Van’s Quilt

  1. I woud go for a friendship quilt anytime too. Friendship has virtually lost meaning these days. What a lovely narration you have here. I’m glad I read it. You write so well. Thanks for sharing!

  2. What a great post! The photos, the history, the stories… I love it! I’m actually thinking of organizing a “quilting bee” with friends of mine, just so we could make a friendship quilt each year. Wouldn’t that be fun?! The link you shared also has some fascinating info. Thanks! 🙂

  3. I have never seen this quilt pattern before – very simple, but makes a neat space for the names. What community in Texas? Patterns often are regional, but I’m in the South and this is a new one for me. Thanks for posting.

    • The town was Mount Pleasant. I know very little about Texas but I think it’s near Merkel. I haven’t seen the pattern before either but I’m not all that experienced. There’s actually another quilt in the same pattern that my sister-in-law has–Orvada must’ve had many women who cared about her!

  4. What a gorgeous quilt with a heartwarming story behind it and you’ve told the story so eloquently. One of my most cherished items is a quilt made by my mother-in-law for my husband and I as a wedding gift. I hope that one of my daughter-in-laws cherishes it like you cherish this one.

    • It really is a treasure! I only met Grandma Van once but still feel like I know here better than that, because I have this quilt and others she made herself. I even hand quilted a quilt top she left unfinished!

      • What a wonderful talent. I would love to learn how to quilt some day. My mother-in-law and I talked about learning together. She’s a sentimental gal as well. 🙂

      • Quilting is very manageable to learn because the basics are so straightforward. And of all the crafts, I think it speaks to me more than any other! Go for it!

    • I agree but it’s a lot of work and, these days, we have so many other options of how to spend our time. I feel like fewer people really dive into big projects, like making a quilt,

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    • Yes! The names almost create their own narrative, populated with a certain kind of tough midwestern woman. My husband’s grandmother’s name was Orvada so she fit right in!

    • So many quilts are kind of anonymous–pretty and expertly crafted but their story is lost. I do love it when there’s a name or a date or a story that goes along with one!

  6. Grandma Van’s quilt is truly beautiful. ‘Tis a pity that people aren’t more prepared to do this sort of thing these days. Maybe it’s a product of many people’s friendships being slightly more ephemeral… or that fact that some people wouldn’t appreciate a hand-made gift.

    • And that so few people seem to possess the skills to make these items. When I read about how young girls were, when they learned to sew and piece quilts, I think we’ve lost something. My 17-year-old niece could no sooner make a quilt, even if it occurred to her1

  7. I am almost lost for words as I sit quietly, having read this post.
    I can not believe that you are able to hold and care for a quilt which is imbued with so much meaning and which came through a time of such hardship.
    I read the Grapes of Wrath when I was a young girl and I have also seen the film and I have always felt such compassion for those struggling folk who had to pick up all they could carry and move on to try and survive.
    I am so moved by this and I know what this pretty quilt must mean to you, valuing, as you do so very much the personal stories behind each fragment of fabric you find.
    How lovely that you know the history behind this quilt.-Karen.

    • Thanks, Karen. The quilt really is the perfect package. I know enough about quilts to know how special it is and I know enough about the Great Depression to know how much it must’ve meant to the people involved. They had so little to call their own and they were all alone–I can’t even really imagine how much the quilt must’ve meant to its owner.

  8. Kerry, this is a beautiful quilt. The moment I saw the first picture on your post, I thought it was among one of the most beautiful quilts I’ve seen. You are so blessed to have it now. It is a very special family heirloom.

    • It’s an interesting pattern–I’ve never seen it in a book or anywhere. And I love the fabrics and how they scream “1930s”! But, you’re right, it having meaning in my husband’s (and now my) family, makes it even more meaningful.

  9. Hi! I came upon your blog while doing a little research on my family. You’re not gonna believe this, but Orvada Hartman Vanlandingham was my grandmother! My dad was her only son, William Vanlandingham.

    • This is so cool! Thank you for letting me know you were here and about the family connection! I’m going to send you email so we have a connection with each other, and you with your cousin, Don.

    • Hi lana.. I seen ur post about grandma Vans Vanlandinghams about being her granddaughter. So am i. I’m the daughter of ur Aunt Thelma feltons.
      Sister of your father Leroy. I Dont think u & i have ever met YET

      • Hi Patty! No, we’ve never met. It’s so nice to “meet” my cousins!! I’ve never met Don either, although I did meet Danny once. I also met Thelma and Doris several times, and Grandma Van at least once (that I can remember). It’s so sad that they are all gone.

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