by Jeanne Gehret

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For centuries, women have pieced quilts and finished them together to tend and befriend. Having just returned from visiting a family member who quilts, I loved seeing her work. So today, I’d like to reflect on what quilting means to the women who create these beautiful textiles and to their fellow stitchers. Along the way, I’ll show you some examples of the quilts in my own family and that of the Anthonys.

My family’s legacy of sewing and quilting

My mother’s seven sisters made much of their own clothing and taught their daughters to sew, too. Like many of my cousins, I began by making crude dresses for my dolls and later graduated to fashioning my own clothing. When my husband and I first met and stood talking in the rain, he was intrigued to learn that I had made the raincoat I was wearing. Thanks, Mom!

As girls, my cousins Judy, Patti, and Mary Ann raised sewing to a high art form.  After losing their father at a young age, they made Barbie clothes to sell and used the money to buy their mom a new winter coat. I still have those beautiful handmade skirts, tams, and blouses for Barbie, that blonde, curvy fashionista of the sixties.

Our Grandma Markiewicz pieced a bed quilt and laprobe for each of her grandchildren. Loving these gifts of warmth that stitched together generations, I began in my teens to make a huge bedcovering from saved scraps. We then sent it to Grandma in Kansas to have all three layers stitched together.

Quilts literally cover our loved ones with warmth and protection. I took up the tradition again as our children began leaving the nest around 2000. First, when Big Thunder went off to college, I made a queen-sized one for the master bedroom. Sorely missing him, I cried and stitched away my lonesomeness.

Later I made twin-sized ones each of our children. Ladybug’s, which spent her college years on top of her dorm bed, is still in good shape. On the left image, across the top and bottom you’ll see the diamond-shaped “God’s eye” blocks. I called the printed squares (on the right) “Tree of Life.”

Quilt in purple, green, and whiteA printed quilt square with purple and green trees

Big Thunder’s own quilt, made of blue jean scraps, is falling apart because he wrapped it around himself to sleep in the woods. I’m glad it kept him warm.

Judy, Patti, and Mary Ann still share quilting projects. Recently, Judy sent me this photo of an eye-catching quilt that she made for two of our other cousins who served in the military.

Quilt top with diagonal red, white, and blue stripes

Quilting in the nineteenth century

Girls in the nineteenth century perfected their stitchery by doing samplers. Their early efforts at replicating alphabets and numbers prepared them to mark family tablecloths, sheets, towels and clothing for identification. In an era when almost all textiles were homemade, sewing served as an important skill.

Somehow, though, Susan B. Anthony’s sister-in-law Annie Osborn Anthony (Daniel Anthony’s wife) lacked this ability. That’s probably because, as a whaling heiress from Martha’s Vineyard, she didn’t need it. Susan discovered this fact when she first visited her brother Daniel and his bride Annie in Kansas, where Annie was expecting her first child.

After Annie fretted that she could not find a seamstress in Leavenworth capable of doing the fine stitching necessary for baby clothing, Susan taught her to sew and they made the layette together. But Susan was never one to waste a moment. Between sewing sessions, she sized up Kansas for the site of her women’s rights campaign two years later.

As a girl from a more middle-class family, Susan started off with a sampler and later became adept at quilting. Here is a replica of the “feathered star” block that she made with her sister Hannah when the latter was engaged to be married. Quilters in Lenexa, Kansas hand-stitched this quilt as a replica of Susan and Hannah’s original.

Susan B Anthony quilt

Later, when Susan began speaking about women’s rights reform, the evils of alcoholism, and the abolition of slavery, she found her first audiences among women who quilted. It was the 1850s, and polite society still frowned on women who gave speeches to mixed company. The all-female society at quilting bees, however, provided the forum she needed to speak freely. Such gatherings also provided time for women to combine work with socializing in an era when “women’s work was never done.”

We make quilts to create family legacies commemorating important events. They warm, shelter, and honor our loved ones. In addition, making them helps us connect with others through tending and befriending.

Tending and befriending

In 2000, a group of psychologists put forth the social theory that besides fight or flight, a common response to stress is to tend and befriend. Nineteenth century quilting bees provided opportunities for women to do both. After putting the colorful, pieced top on a large frame, they gathered with several others to sew all the layers together. This offered a chance to help each other and socialize at the same time.

The psychologists who coined the term “tend and befriend,” generally associate such behaviors with women. In addition to the many talented women mentioned above, I also come from a family of men who help each other with building garages, plumbing, installing new floors, and a myriad of other household renovations. Not to mention the Habitat Houses that many have undertaken!

I see working on shared tasks as tending and befriending, no matter who’s doing it. It’s a tradition as old as the hills, and heartwarming to everyone involved.

4 Comments

  1. Carol Crossed April 12, 2024 at 9:01 pm - Reply

    The quilting bee information is fascinating. If we could have only recorded these late 19c conversations where women tending and befriending could pour their hearts out about subjects not ‘acceptable’ in other arenas.

    One wonders if Annie, not economically disadvantaged like many others, could easily have been one of the many women offering supportive help through charitable institutions to others in difficult situations.

    Carol Crossed

    • Jeanne Gehret April 21, 2024 at 11:22 am - Reply

      Yes, newspaper reports of her day record her looking after the poor in a section in the city. Later, as we know, she supported women’s suffrage by being a hostess with the mostest for large suffrage receptions. She loved singing and, with a duet partner, sang at funerals. Talk about using one’s gifts in a unique way!

  2. Kathy Peters April 14, 2024 at 12:21 pm - Reply

    Very informative! Thanks for keeping us in touch with the past, Jeanne!

    • Jeanne Gehret April 21, 2024 at 11:23 am - Reply

      I appreciate your kind words, Kathy.

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