Late in 2016, Mia was given a crazy quilt, the kind comprised of many tiny pieces, usually unrelated and unmatched. It was made around 1882. As the registrar at Mia in charge of processing new art acquisitions, examining every object being considered for addition to our collection, it was my job to look over every detail of the quilt. My thoughts turned to my grandmother Elizabeth Fosler.
She was a lifelong quilter, and seeing quilts always makes me think of her. She made a new quilt about every 18 months. Some were embroidered blocks stitched by hand, and some had pieced tops sewn together on a sewing machine, but they were all quilted completely by hand. She usually gave them away, as gifts to relatives. She made quilts for new babies, weddings, or when a new bed was purchased—especially if a toddler was moving up from a crib to a “big kid’s bed.” My two cousins and I slept tight as children, tucked under grandma’s quilts, every stitch made with love and care especially for us.
She never made a crazy quilt, though. She used to say she needed a more defined pattern, because crazy quilts “never come out square.” (She might have changed her mind after seeing Mia’s new acquisition, as it’s made up of square blocks.) The closest thing to crazy quilts my grandma made were two quilts in the “Rainbow Round the World” pattern, with tiny, one-inch blocks. One of my cousins got one of those quilts, and I got the other.
My grandmother quilted in an old-fashioned way, stretching the entire quilt out, filling her dining room from wall to wall, with each side of the quilt pinned to flannel-covered boards, held very tight with clamps at the corners. Each corner of the frame rested on a sawhorse. The whole family, and sometimes the neighbors, would help her roll the quilt from two opposite sides as she quilted, starting at the ends and finishing up in the middle. I have memories from childhood of setting up little “caves” to play in under my grandma’s drop-leaf table in the center of the dining room, beneath a quilt on the frame.
Quilts are usually considered rather feminine, and were given to brides and new mothers, but Mia’s crazy quilt is different. Carolyn Bremner, who donated it to Mia, told us it had been given to her grandfather by his mother when he started pharmacy school. A printed ribbon from a pharmacy association and printed Masonic ribbons are included in the design. The colors of the quilt are dark, rich, and more typically masculine, in contrast with the objects embroidered on it: flowers, a butterfly, a teapot. Most importantly, like my grandma’s quilts, it was stitched with love and care, a warm reminder of home for a son about to go off on his own.
So many talented people—mainly women, largely undocumented and unrecognized—have spent countless hours of work on these treasures for the people they themselves treasured. Along with the beauty, imagination, and craftsmanship of these quilts, the love stitched into them endures.
Top image: The crazy quilt given to Mia in 2016 by Carolyn Crandall Bremner and family in honor of their grandparents, Dr. Frank and Jennie May Allen.