wedding quilt

In my family, each of the women make quilts in preparation for their marriage. My mother’s quilt had a white background with intricate blue and green designs embroidered onto the quilt top. My older sister’s quilt was pieced—an Amish-like simple navy blue and white design.

I knew I would want something special for my quilt, something that reflected the symbolism of my wedding and also would be traditional and elegant. I became enchanted with ‘whole-cloth’ quilts–where the fabric is all one piece and the design comes from the quilt stitches. I found a design that I liked—a pattern taken from a 19th-century wedding quilt. With interlocking rings and vines, on all-white fabric. I loved the way the rings and circles in the pattern symbolized the eternal union that I desired. And I wanted it to be white, to remind me of the temple and of purity. Yet I knew that a quilt of such complexity would take a long time to create and I ran the risk of never finishing it! But I also knew it was the one. And I wouldn’t be satisfied with anything else.

At the time I settled on this particular quilt pattern I wasn’t yet engaged. It was my sophomore year of college and my boyfriend of my freshman year was serving a mission. I was also dating two other RMs rather seriously. I figured that one of the three would be proposing soon enough and so I ought to get started on the quilt just in case. As a Christmas gift my Mom purchased all of the supplies for the quilt and she marked the design on the quilt top. We set up the quilt frame in the Dining Room and began quilting.

Now, for those of you who aren’t quilters, let me explain a few things:
1) Quilt stitches are small, often 4-5 stitches per inch. I was planning a king-size quilt with designs so close and complex that there were often multiple rows of stitches per each square inch of fabric (was I crazy???).

2) When you quilt, you have to send the needle through three layers: the top layer of fabric, the ‘batting’ or cotton stuffing in the middle, and the bottom layer of fabric. There’s only one way to know if you’re needle made it successfully through all three layers, and that is to use the tip of your finger to ‘feel’ the needle poke through underneath. This means that with each and every stitch, the tip of your finger is ever-so-slightly pricked by the point of your sharp needle. The upshot: after about 2 hours of quilting, the tips of each finger are full of so many holes that the skin resembles raw hamburger—and are often oozing little drops of blood.

At the time that we were making my wedding quilt, I attended a university about three hours from my parents’ home and I lived in the dorms. So I could only work on it when I traveled home on weekends. Which was, at most, twice per month. When I did come home, I would spend much of the weekend bent over the quilt frame. My mother also put in many hours stitching during the days that I wasn’t home. It took us eleven months to complete the quilting.

As I sat sewing I had much time for thinking. A lot of my thoughts were about my future. It was as I was sitting over that quilt that I read the letter from my missionary where he said that he intended to propose to me when he returned home from Japan. And as I thought about that for a long time, I decided that my future was with him, and the quilt would someday grace our bed.

Ironically, perhaps, even though we married five months after John returned to the States, we have never used this quilt. We have never slept under it. It seems far too precious and too fragile. Until very recently, I’ve never felt that I had a bed that was pretty enough for such a quilt. But even now that we have a nice bed, we use an inexpensive (and washable!) matlesse spread. Our wedding quilt is carefully folded in my grandma’s cedar chest that sits at the foot of our bed. Occasionally I take it out and look at it. But usually only when we are moving to a new home.

My older sister, on the other hand, put her wedding quilt on her bed for everyday use. My Mother also had her wedding quilt on her bed until it was stained by diaper changes and the messiness of raising five small children.

Today, to take these pictures I spread out the quilt on my bed in the morning light. As I did so, my kitties kept jumping up on the bed and frolicking. They wanted to lie in the sun on the quilt. I fretted a bit about the black and grey cat hair that I could see already accumulating in their favorite spots. Then I let myself stretch out over the quilt and I thought about the intention, love, and hard work that I had invested in this one simple piece of cloth. A few yards of fabric, some cotton stuffing, and thousands upon thousands of tiny stitches. Blood, sweat, and tears. Joy.

And I thought to myself: What am I waiting for? Why not use it tonight and tomorrow and from now on?

Jana

Jana is university administrator and History professor. Her soloblog is http://janaremy.com/pilgrimsteps/

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  1. ldahospud says:

    Beautiful post (and extraordinary quilt!). While I have never made a masterpiece such as yours, I have made many quilts and given away nearly all of them. I know when I am laboring over a quilt that I hope the recipient will USE it, snuggle it, pet it, study its details, love it. I don’t spend so many hours on a quilt so it can be stuck on a shelf.

    That said, I understand why it took you so long to get yours out “for real.” That labor of time and love is no small thing–but what better way to honor what it means to you than to sleep under it with your loved one?

    Thank you for sharing the story and the pictures. Inspiring!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Some people put them on the wall. I think that’s really pretty. Then everyone can see it, but it lasts longer.

  3. jana says:

    anonymous:
    Yes, I should think about hanging this one on the wall. In my living room I have a colorful abstract quilt that my Mom made for me a few years ago and it brings me much joy, too. 🙂

  4. AmyB says:

    Jana, beautiful post, and what a beautiful quilt!

    My mother decided she would make a quilt for each of her seven children for their wedding. I was the first. My quilt has been the only one I’ve used for the past six years of my marriage.

    My mother has just started working on her third quilt for my brother’s wedding in December. (In true Mormon fashion, he only met the girl a month or two ago and they have a wedding date set.) It hink quilting is a beautiful tradition. My brother announced his engagement to my mother by telling her he needed her to start working on a quilt. It’s been fun for me to see how excited my brothers get about this tradition, and it’s a lovely gift from my mother to her new daugthers-in-law. Makes me think maybe I need to learn to quilt!

  5. Tatiana says:

    The quilt is amazing and stunningly beautiful! I’m in awe.

  6. tracy m says:

    As a quilter, may I say: Use it!

    Oh, and every quilt I have ever quilted has little dots of my blood somewhere on the back.

  7. jana says:

    AmyB and others:
    I’d love to see photos of your quilts (wedding or otherwise)–do post the links here and I can add some pics into the body of the post. 🙂

    Questions: Do you think quilting is becoming a lost art for Mormon women? Are younger women still doing this or is it only the older generation? Will any of you teach your daughters to quilt?

  8. Deborah says:

    In THEORY I’d like to learn how to quilt . . . I’ve had that theory for 15 years or so. Right up there with my theory of canning . . .

    But I will teach my daughters to write!

  9. Maralise says:

    Jana–Thank you for this beautiful piece, the quilt and the essay. I do agree that quilting is becoming a lost art. When my grandmother quilted, it was a community effort, it was an EVENT. I noticed that as my mom aged that the event was taken out of the process, it became more solitary, and the painstaking labor for the individual therefore increased. I would love to teach my daughter how to quilt (if I only had one…) however, I’m not sure I could do it without my mom to tell me how to lay it out, without my grandmother insisting that the stitches be even. I want it to be an event again…but modern life often does not allow it.

    Thanks again…

  10. tracy m says:

    Jana- I’ll be 35 on Wednesday, and I hand quilt and piece. I fully intend to teach my daughter, and one of my sons is very interested in learning, too.

  11. Stephen says:

    Neat. My mom has always been a quilter, though I did help with one of the quilts I have, it is hard to use them on a bed, rather than put them on a quilt rack as art work.

    I appreciate the hand quilting vs. machine work. I had one that won a grand prize in an Idaho County fair that had machine work and my mother was so upset she wouldn’t let me submit it for the state fair (I should note that the quilt was a complete map of middle earth that I sketched out for her, but she used machine embroidery to do the embroidery, the rest was done by hand including the border I quilted).

    My wife quilts as well, I think it is neat.

  12. Johnna says:

    In my family, the fancy quilts like yours are hung on a quilt rack overnight, never slept under. In the morning, the fancy quilt is put on the bed (along with decorative pillows &c) and no one sits on the bed.

    I think you get a better view on the handwork on the bed than on the wall.

  13. jana says:

    Johnna~
    Great idea 🙂

    To all~
    I’m glad to know that the quilting tradition is still alive for some of you 🙂 And a Middle Earth quilt–Wow!–do send a link, please!

  14. Anonymous says:

    So many people put away huge aspects of their lives as they wait for “just the right time and place” to use them.

    Most of them die and never do what they had always planned on. This is true in both our physical lives and in our spiritual and intellectual lives.

    If you don’t use the fine china and all your treasured belongings on a regular basis, you are wasting your life.

  15. tracy m says:

    Annon- I couldn’t agree more!

  16. Dora says:

    I quilt a little. I’ve done little blanket quilts, both tied and pieced.

    However, I was blown away by some of the free-style quilts out there. When I was recently in Raleigh, NC visiting some friends, I stumbled upon Ann Harwell in her studio. Her work is amazingly colorful and vibrant. What I saw was machine stitched, but even the colors of the thread changed and brought all the pieces together. See more of her work at
    http://www.quiltartisannharwell.com/astronomy_gallery.php

  17. jana says:

    Dora: like you, I _love_ color (hence, the irony that my wedding quilt is all-white!). My more recent quilting projects have been riots of color.

    I really like what my daughter came up with for her first quilt (link below). My sister helped her with it and they did freehand quilting with her machine and put things like cat outlines and trees and words into the actual quilting. It’s just adorable:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/37666068@N00/39539635

  18. Vicki says:

    I’m in my 30s and I quilt. I started the year I got married, 10 years ago. (I really started earlier than that, helping tie lots of quilts when I was growing up but 10 years ago was when I bought all the gear and made a quilt somewhat like the quilts I’d seen in a quilt show.) I’ve made several quilts for my kids and baby quilts for my nieces and nephews when (or soon after) they are born. I machine quilt them. Here are links to a few pictures of my quilts:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/17723088@N00/1435732299/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/17723088@N00/440881645/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/17723088@N00/507804508/

  19. Deborah says:

    Beautiful, Vicki. May I ask how long it takes to machine quilt something that size? I can sew a straight line on a machine, so maybe my desire to quilt “in theory” could become a reality . . .

  20. jana says:

    Vicki:
    Thanks for the links, your quilts and other sewing projects are gorgeous! 🙂

  21. Vicki says:

    I can machine quilt a baby quilt in about an hour and a half or a little less. I usually do it over 2 days; I can get really sore and stiff if I don’t break it up. I took a class at a local quilt shop to learn free motion quilting–I did ok when I first started but I still think I improve with each quilt I quilt.

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