The Nine-Patch Journey

Donna Church wrote a wonderful article for the July/August issue of McCall’s Quilting (available in print or digital format) talking about one lovely nine-patch quilt, it’s history, and the feelings it evokes.

Donna Church

I handle this beloved old Nine-Patch quilt with care as I unfold it, for it carries many years and is becoming fragile. Feeling the weight of it, I remember the cold nights made warm for me under these cheerful colors. Bringing it off the shelf again reminds me of the joy I felt when it became my own. It speaks to me of people I have cherished and still love. More than design and fabric and stitches, from the beginning it has reflected strength and comfort, peace and security.

The memories of restless anxious nights coping with illness float back to me. I feel Mother’s cool hand on my hot forehead, her gentle voice reassuring, hiding her worry. I hear the insistent hiss of the steam vaporizer. Surely, even now, I can smell the faint traces of Vick’s VapoRub. I remember the dark hours, the creak of the floor as my Mom crosses the room. Her touch is real to me once more as she pulls the quilt snug around me. In that half-drowse I know I am loved; I do not forget it.

Now I hear echoes of voices of young friends who stayed overnight, sitting cross-legged on the patchwork. Combing each other’s hair, experimenting with nail polish, whispering hot confidences, reading movie magazines. It was heady stuff. We giggled and gossiped and pronounced judgment on all the boys. Girls growing up, turning the slow pages of the calendar, imagining what we might one day become.

These stains must be from the tears I shed after the heartbreak of a sophomore romance, wherein we swore undying love, but it died anyway. Tears of disappointment and anger after my parents’ resolute “Absolutely not!” So many tears, tracing the path to maturity. Now I can’t help smiling.

I remember this quilt across a dormitory bed during my years of nursing school. Wrapped and comforted, I learned about homesickness for the first time. It yielded to my joys, excitement, anger, and frustration, and the long hours of intense study. It heard my prayers for those patients I saw in crisis, and the terrors I felt in assuming the weight of monumental responsibility. Witnessing my personal professional growth, this bright quilt became a significant friend, saying nothing, yet always there for support.

After World War II, this was the “something old” I brought with me to a young husband, a comfort needed by an uncertain bride. It became a spot of color in a sadly worn apartment on a university campus, helping to make a first home inviting. During four long years, the Nine-Patch covered two instead of one as we worked to prepare my ex-GI for his engineering degree.

One by one, four babies were wrapped and rocked in these folds, settling a little peace into a household filled with laughter, shouts, slamming screen doors, and cries for Mama. Our years were marked by sorrows and joys; times of conflict and resolution; hot, angry words and the sweetness of forgiveness. Inevitably this quilt was dragged into the bed of the one who needed it most. It was made into tents, was spread for picnics, and washed again and again. And so many times it was folded and packed into another moving van.

Now, in the time of the long shadows of my life, I look down the years to the beginning of this quilt. Truly, love gave it birth. Springtime, and a grandmother who thought I was the cat’s pajamas. “You need a quilt of your own, sweetie.” I watched with five-year-old eyes as we sat on the porch steps in May sunshine, sorting through her scrap bag of calico leftovers.

The songs of birds in spring recall for me the creet, creet sound of her long shears as she cut the bright colors into little squares. I counted and separated them into blues, reds, greens, pinks, and yellows, delighted to participate.

As the weeks passed, her needle stitched piece to piece, until the Nine-Patch blocks began to form, then were joined in a simple lovely design, sized for my bed. On our knees we unrolled the soft white cotton batting, “Mountain Mist” the wrapper read, implying far-away wonders. We laughed. No mountains in Illinois. Only corn. Strong bleached muslin provided the backing and long basting stitches kept it all together. At last it was in place in the front room, rolled firmly onto the old wood quilting frame.

Aunts, friends, and neighbors stopped in for an hour or so several days a week, bringing thimbles and needles. “So this will be your quilt,” they smiled, giving me hugs or a pat on the head. Gathering together, bolstered with glasses of cold lemonade against the heat, they began the stitching, speaking in low summer voices.

I lay on the rug beneath the frame watching the needles go in and out, creating feathery designs across the fabric. Lazy beautiful hours, I recall, listening to the gentle conversations filtering down to me: lessons in survival from women, strong like my grandmother.

These quilters carried local news, occasionally imparted in whispers, with widened eyes, clucks of the tongue. Gossip, recipes, gentle jokes, teasing, solutions to dealing with husbands and children, passing the time in murmuring voices, laughter, sighs.

“I hear she thought he had money when she married him.” (laughter)

“Canned fifty quarts of beans yesterday, tomatoes coming on. Mercy, it’s hot in that kitchen.”

“I bought him some tobacco so’s he wouldn’t notice I got that extra piece of dress goods.” (laughter)

“Hon, would you hand me that spool of thread please?”

“I’ve no more idea than a rabbit what to put on the table for supper tonight.”

Listening, I picked at scabs, cuddled the cat, and often dozed in that safe shelter under the quilting frame. Down there I looked at the worn shoes, stockings rolled down for comfort, the cotton print dresses wrinkled in the heat of midsummer. It became a surreptitious art to eavesdrop and I absorbed it all.

The strengths of women coping with hard times, the depression years, were made into that quilt with even, tiny stitches, no knots showing. Sometimes they sang, their wavering sopranos blending with quickly bitten thread. Silences were punctuated with the snick of needle against thimble. Each day the beauty became more apparent as the quilt was rolled tightly onto the frame and unrolled from the opposite side.

One day, after a long stitching session, the women prepared to leave, standing and stretching, and it was agreed that one more “reach” would finish it. I collected the lemonade glasses in ecstasy.

Quilting is a serene work. How could I have known it would become a document of lessons learned? Because a quilt develops slowly, the day-to-day events of family living become a vital part of the creation. It has worn well, and as I look at it now I know it has underlined all my days. It sings my personal journey.

I was a fortunate child to be eyewitness to not only the quilt-making process, but the loving relationships surrounding it—values taught by strong women who were as firm and put together as this lovely old Nine-Patch.

Tenderly returning it to its place on the shelf, I can clearly feel my grandmother’s hug the day she laid the folded bulk into my arms. Its weight and cottony smell promised the long and intimate years we’ve had together.

A quilt of my own, born on the prairie, with Mountain Mist in its heart.

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