Butterfly Quilts, December 2020
“Families are like quilts, stitched together one piece at a time.”
When I first became engaged, one of the new traditions was to travel to the countryside of North Carolina and spend time with my then fiancé’s family.
His maternal and paternal grandparents lived on farms just a few miles apart, and both lived exactly how you thought one might live on the farm. Suppers with every vegetable known to man, two types of meat, and sweet tea. Grandmothers and Aunts in the kitchen, men in the yard, all spending time talking and relaxing. Using what they had, before buying anything new, and wasting nothing.
After dinner, the women would talk about recipes and Grandma would usually bring out her latest project, to show, get comments, and even help on. During one of these visits, my future mother-in-law and her mother talked about making a butterfly quilt. They were using scraps of fabric from past dresses, shirts, and skirts, and the backing that each butterfly would be appliqued to, white sheeting, was possibly the only fabric purchased. Grandma shared fabric, black embroidery thread, and quit sheeting pieces with her daughter. They had ordered the pattern from “Laura Wheeler” in New York and made copies to share as well.
That was the summer and fall of 1976. I don’t remember seeing or hearing anything more about the quilt until August of 2020. My husband’s grandparents and parents have all passed on, leaving countless items behind. When my in-laws were in a nursing home, their home was emptied and remodeled. The contents were put into storage units to be sorted through when the time was right. Little by little boxes and containers have been drifting into our home as we slowly and carefully look through them. Everything from photo albums to holiday decorations.
As I was cleaning and organizing, I found a worn and torn cardboard box with fabric, sewing notions, old photo negatives, and a few crocheted doilies inside. After digging and trying to sort through the items in the box, there, wrapped in a drycleaning bag, were the applique butterflies from years before. There were calico, gingham, solid, striped, flowered, and plaid butterflies. All were sewn to the sheeting using a buttonhole stitch of black embroidery thread. Some were stitched as neatly and evenly spaced as close to perfect as you could find, others a little less perfect, but each stitched completely by hand. My mother-in-law was not one to sugar coat things, but also harder on herself than anyone else. She would profess that she did not spend much time in the house sewing, as she was needed in the fields after her brothers had all enlisted in the armed services. I know she would have claimed the imperfect squares, but I can almost bet they were sewn by her younger sister Carolyn, who was born with Down Syndrome and was never excluded from anything that the others were doing. I remember some of the fabric used for the butterflies as dresses that Carolyn and Grandma wore. Also in the box was the pattern, carbon paper, and poor Xerox copies of the pattern. They adapted the pattern from a “Butterfly Puff Quilt” to a very simplified applique quilt.
After looking over the pattern, I began to look at the actual butterflies again and started counting. There were ninety squares in all. Ninety hand-stitched appliqued butterflies of every fabric color available to them over forty years ago. I tried to sort pastels from primary colors and an assortment of prints and solids. A lifelong friend and experienced quilter was called in to “consult”. We decided on making two quilts, one for each of my daughters, but soon realized there were enough squares for three quilts with a few more left to use for pillows.
Fabric was selected to compliment the three stacks of butterfly squares, and the cutting and assembly began. A yellow quilt, a pink quilt, and a grey quilt. The piecing took place in early fall, and the actual quilting was done by machine on a longarm quilting machine, so the quilts could be given as Christmas gifts. I’m sure Grandma would have set the quilt frame up in the living room, and they would have been quilted by hand, but I like to think she and my mother-in-law would have approved of how the squares were divided, pieced together, and machine quilted.
“We stitch together quilts of meaning to keep us warm and safe, with whatever patches of beauty and utility we have on hand.” Anne Lamott