In the living room of the old farmhouse, before we “adapted” it for modern use, there were four iron hooks screwed in to the wooden planks forming the ceiling. They might have confused a big-city dweller from the Northeast, but anyone having grown up in the south during the first half of the 20th Century, or earlier, would have recognized them at once.
They were hooks fashioned to hold a “quilting frame” that was lowered from the ceiling and around which a person or people gathered to sew quilts. Some frames unfolded and rested on the floor, but I mainly recall those attached to the ceiling. Quilters were almost always women but there are photographs of mothers teaching their sons the art.
The quilt is a cloth sandwich, with a top, which is usually the decorated part, a back, and a filler in the middle. There are different types, but I am most familiar with so-called “patchwork quilts” with toppings of individual pieces of material. There isn’t much in the modern world to match one for comfort when spread across the bed on a cold winter’s night.
Quilts represent a prime example of our tendency to combine utilitarian pursuits with artwork. We still have in our possession an unfinished example my grandmother started of the “double wedding ring” design, a thing of beauty and precision.
Of a Sunday afternoon when I was a youth, after the women had gotten the families to church, gathered at my grandmother’s house, and cooked Sunday dinner (it became “lunch” much later), the men would eat and then retire to play dominoes while the women ate and washed the dishes.
Afterwards, the quilting frame, with its product in some stage of completion, would descend and the women would gather round it and pass the time visiting and sewing. A reliable source says that, “Much of the handwork involved in quilting may have been a form of relaxation for pioneer women, a relief from the drudgery and real labor of family life on the frontier. Additionally, fine handwork was a source of pride and status.”
Myself, I think it also served notice to the women of the South back then that, even in leisure, they should be doing something useful.
In addition to the fellowship and purpose, these “quilting bees,” represented a rural version, back then, of the “world-wide web.” As we children would doze on the way home from the gathering, my parents would swap information gathered from their respective sources. I can, if I close my eyes, still hear snatches of news.
“Elmer just can’t help it. He’s a Republican and that’s all there is to it.”
“Ed’s Gracie told us (the name “Gracie” was so common among women that they used the husband’s name to sort them) that Katie Mae was gonna marry that man anyway, and him her second cousin.”
A few years ago, I saw an automatic quilt-making machine that featured a “stitcher” mounted on a long rail. It produced a fine product quickly, but it sort of reminded me of those tomatoes grown in a factory building. They may look like tomatoes, feel like tomatoes, and even taste a bit like tomatoes. But I can just hear the judgment passed along at the quilting frame of something not lovingly nurtured by human hands.
“I tell you one thing. They ain’t tomaters.”