I love family history activities that culminate in something tangible, especially quilting. You can turn just about anything you can wear into a memory quilt.
I first encountered a memory quilt at my friend Katie’s house, when I was eight years old. Her guestroom had a bedspread like none I had ever seen. It looked like someone had sewn a blue satin dress right onto the bed. It was covered in sequins and beads, with streams of blue and purple radiating out from the waist. I was enchanted. I remarked that it looked like something a queen would wear. Katie answered, “Yes, my mom used to be a queen, and this is what she wore.” Katie proved it by showing me a large picture of her mom, in the dress, on the wall downstairs. I was a amazed. A real, live queen lived just across the street from me, and she had the bedspread to prove it!
A year or so later, I learned that Katie’s mom had been a beauty queen. The dress on the bedspread was the one she wore in the evening gown portion of the Miss Texas pageant. Later, she had made it into a quilt to commemorate the event. Since then I have seen many other memory quilts. They tend to fall into three categories.
This type of quilt is usually made as a gift or a means of self expression. It is meant to reflect who a person is. The photo here is one my mom made for my dad. Like this one, persona quilts often include a lot of novelty fabrics, each chosen because it has some special significance for that person. Here some of the squares represent his Eagle Scout award, the universities he attended (Brigham Young University and the University of Utah), and some of his favorite foods (suckers, BBQ, and hot sauce).
These are made to commemorate an event or a series of events. My neighbor’s pageant dress bedspread is in this category. Such a quilt might be made from a wedding dress or race t-shirts. Annette, the wife of one of our engineers at MyHeritage, made this one to commemorate her daughter’s accomplishments in high school band. It includes a lot of embroidery and appliqué.
Classic Memory Quilt
These are the most popular memory quilts. They are made from the fabrics that we most associate with a person, usually their clothing. I have seen them made from baby clothes, old jeans, and even neckties. They are usually made in memory of a period of life that is already past (like baby clothes) or, as in this example, in memory of a person who has passed away.
My friend Heather Lott was commissioned to make a set of three quilts for a woman whose mother had passed away. The daughter went through her mother’s clothes and pulled out anything that reminded her of her mom. These were mostly things that she wore often, but also things she wore for special events. Heather transformed them into three lovely quilts, one for each of the deceased woman’s children. Now, whenever the children and grandchildren see the fabrics in that quilt, they remember Grandma.
These quilts may be cozy and even beautiful. But what makes them a piece of family history is the story. Who wore this dress? When did that happen? How is this person related to me? I love the idea of putting together a little bit of my family history that is tangible and functional. I imagine myself wrapping up my kids in the blanket someday, pointing to each square and telling them where it came from and why I love it — thus turning a warm, comfy quilt into a bit of history.
I have a little stack of baby clothes, and I plan to make a blanket with them. I sat down the other day to get started so I could share it in this post. My kids are still young, and I cherish those little onesies and jackets. I sat there with my scissors in hand, before a pile of my sons’ old clothes, but I couldn’t bring myself to cut them up. What if I want the baby to wear this? (That’s not likely, since she is a girl and these are boy clothes.) What if my kids want their children to wear this? (I know this possibility is even more remote.) I actually got misty-eyed, sitting there. I know that the whole point of making the quilt is to preserve those memories, but I was unprepared for the emotions. So my step-by-step instructions don’t yet lead to my own finished product.
- Step 1: Select and Prepare
Be sure to select items that are meaningful. Remember that, depending on the size of the squares, you may be able to get multiple square from one garment. Cut the clothes along enough seams to make the fabric lie down flat.
This is the crucial step. When we sew a quilt, we want even squares, but many of the fabrics you use may be stretchy, like a t-shirt. This can make the squares uneven after they are cut. Buy some lightweight fusible interfacing. Cut that into squares a little larger than your final square size.Then iron it onto the back of the clothing.
Make sure you cut all your squares the same size. The easiest way to do this is with a cutting mat, rotary cutter, and ruler. If you don’t have these, you can get good results with a square cardboard template and sharp scissors.
Once all your squares are cut, lay them out on the floor and arrange them any way you like. If you are short a few squares, add in some generic fabric squares where needed. Then sew them together as you would any other quilt. Sew one row at a time, then sew each row to the next.
Finish the quilt in the usual ways. Add a layer of quilt batting and a fabric backing. Then either tie the quilt or have it quilted professionally.
Enjoy the memories.