A Quilt for All Reasons: IBMTD #5

1812Since I finished my last quilt (finally!), I’ve been meaning to start a new one (IBMTD). I love to have a project to pick up and work on at odd moments and I love the process of stitching and watching something pretty develop from my own hands.

But I hadn’t started anything because I simply wasn’t inspired. I didn’t know what direction to go, what pattern to use, what fabrics to choose. Nothing was speaking to me.

But then I learned about a quilt challenge that has been going on for a couple of years to commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812. This project focuses on the making of “cot to coffin” quilts and has been taken up by quilt guilds in towns where battles took place in the War of 1812. Quiltmakers design and make quilts of 70 inches by 30 inches, using techniques and fabrics consistent with what quilters would have had access to in 1812-1814.

The moment I heard about this project, I was smitten, and inspired to make a quilt for the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Plattsburgh, NY, to take place in September 2014. Other members of the local quilt guild will be making quilts, too, and the entries will be displayed during the celebration.

The Cot to Coffin project and my plan for my quilt let me bring together so many elements that I love:

First, of course, I love that I’m quilting. I love adding my hands to the tradition of working with textiles to create beautiful, meaningful, and useful objects.

Second, this project takes history out of the dusty past and asks us to re-consider an unusual war. The War of 1812 was supposedly fought between Great Britain and America but really mostly affected the lives of Americans and Canadians, as well as native peoples of the area.

When the war was over, both Americans and Canadians considered themselves to have been victorious and the outcome has led to 200 years of peace and good will between the two countries—you can’t make that claim for a lot of wars!

I also love that these quilts focus us on people often overlooked by history—the foot soldiers and the women left at home as the battles were waged. The size of the quilts was determined at least in part because of a tradition documented from the later quilts made for Civil War soldiers. The size of 70 inches by 30 inches is “about the size of a man” and organizers of this quilt challenge thought it was possible that such quilts, which were “small enough to roll into a backpack while on the march . . .  and may well have served as a burial shroud,” would’ve been used in earlier wars as well.

I imagine a mother or wife hurrying to make a quilt to send with her son or husband, to keep him warm and to bring a bit of home into battle. And, should the worst happen, the quilt, and the love stitched in, could carry the soldier to his grave.

Third, this quilt challenge appeals to me is because I grew up in the Plattsburgh area and have been hearing about the Battle of Plattsburgh my whole life. I can envision the locales where the fighting took place and I see historical markers every day that remind me of the battle.

Beyond this, my own ancestors have lived in the North Country of upstate New York at least since the late 1700s and, since I know they fought in the American Revolution, it seems likely that some of them also fought in the War of 1812. Did some woman in my lineage make a quilt to accompany a man she loved, as he went off to fight?

Even if not, I know that eyes related to mine watched the battle. The family farm was on a hill overlooking Plattsburgh and Lake Champlain. The story passed down through generations tells of my forebears hiding the cows in the woods, so British soldiers wouldn’t take them for food, and then watching the battle take place on the lake below.

Fourth, this project excites me because it will allow me to honor a song I’ve loved for a long time. I’ll tell you more about all of this in future posts but a key part of my quilt design is a set of panels upon which I’ll embroider the words to this song.

The song is called “The Banks of Champlain” and I learned it years and years ago from an album by my folk hero, Pete Seeger. The song is said to have been written by the wife of the field commander of the Battle of Plattsburgh, to convey her thoughts and worries as she watched the battle unfold.

I love this romantic narrative, as it poignantly relays the thoughts of a woman who worries about her husband at war. She doesn’t just send him off to war and worry from afar but, rather, she watches as he fights the war before her very eyes. Her husband, Alexander Macomb, and his counterpart, Commodore Thomas Macdonough, are given historical credit for the strategies that allowed a small contingent of Americans to defeat the much larger British force.

So, I have a new project that combines a craft I love, history, romance, a family angle, a folksong—what more could I want? One more thing—a clear, unequivocal deadline! With my history of letting projects languish incomplete for years, it’s motivating (and a little terrifying!) to have a specific date by which this needs to be finished.

And that date is the end of June. Expect to be hearing more as time gets tight!

28 thoughts on “A Quilt for All Reasons: IBMTD #5

  1. Not a quilter but totally inspired by your inspiration! Can’t wait to see the finished product. I know it will be amazing and “speak volumes” to those who are lucky enough to see it!

    • I hope I’ll have a moment or two to breathe! Actually, since it’s a small-ish quilt, I’m hopeful that I can finish it. I’m excited that you’ll be with me on the journey!

  2. Our local community hosts a quilt show every September. We enjoy getting there each year. The quilts are different each year & made with variety techniques and technology. Some have themes and others family histories.

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  5. I gave myself a few quiet moments after reading your post. I am so moved by the beauty of this project, by the poignancy of the story behind the beauty of your stitches and quilt. You have given me an insight into a world I knew nothing of and yet am now able to empathise with. Those poor women pouring their love into every stitch in the hope it would offer protection. Sometimes, with our modern lives and material advantages, we forget……don’t we about love and fear and about the things that really matter. I so hope to see the finished quilt and also to share with you, one day the quilts I have made.Thank you- Karen.

    • Thanks for taking the time, both to read the post so carefully and to comment so thoughtfully! I’ve obviously been very engaged by this particular project–the history, the emotion, the crafting, all of it. I hope maybe, at some point, you’ll write in your blog about quilts you’ve made! It always so fun to see how others use color and shape to express themselves!

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