Manly Hands at Home: A Gift for Her

sewing cases-6We all know a handmade gift is different, right? The idea that someone took the time to create something just for me makes a person feel special and valued.

When I first saw these sewing cases, I couldn’t believe how neat and perfectly designed they were. But then, when I heard their story, the cases were elevated to a “whole nother level,” as we say at my house.

I came across five or six of these, all within a couple of years, at garage sales. They were all made of wood and designed to hold and organize sewing supplies. Some were large, some smaller. All had handles on top so the cases could be carried. Some had fabric panels on the outside, some fake leather, and one a heavy, sort of coated cardboard. They were very similar but customized in special ways.

Finally one of the garage sale women told me the story—that the pattern for the cases had been a project offered by the Cooperative Extension and designed for husbands to make for their wives.

The Cooperative Extension Service system was created by the U.S. Congress as a means of educating the average citizen of rural America in skills needed for farming, household, and community work. The system was formalized in 1914 and, in addition to providing resources for farm men and women, instituted 4-H programs.

Much of the work of the Cooperative Extension has been directed to providing people with the skills and information to make the things they need and do for themselves. They’re still very active today, even though the rural population has dropped dramatically; they provide information for gardeners and do-it-yourself-ers, in addition to farmers.

So, apparently, one set of plans that was made available in the 1950s was for these compact sewing cases. Men made them as a gift for their wives, daughters, or girlfriends to stow their sewing supplies. They all have little dowels to store spools of thread; on one of these the shelf with the dowels tilts out for easy access.

sewing cases-3 sewing cases-4They all have pockets in which to tuck scissors and other tools and some of them have screw lids attached to the underside of a shelf so that jars of buttons or pins could be attached. Several of the ones I got had old sewing paraphernalia still in them.

sewing cases-1sewing cases-2 I just love the levels of “loving hands” represented in these cases—a man making something for a woman, to make it easier for her to make items for the family and the home. A man and woman, working together, to customize the case so that it is both attractive and as fully useful as it can be. How cool is that?

I kept only two of these cases, thinking I’d find more. But, weirdly, after that flurry of finding several in a couple years, I’ve not seen another. Have you ever seen one of these before? Wouldn’t you love to have one made just for you? I’m still searching, to see if I can find those old plans—if I find them, I’ll be sure to share them here!

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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