Family quilts laden with history
QUILTING has been a tradition passed down for over a century in Margaret Moss’ family.
There are many show quilts that have been made by the family to display at family reunions, and unique histories to go with each.
Moss is very proud of one quilt passed down by her great-grandmother, Artha Lee Van Horn Massey Surber, from the 1940s.
Artha spent most of her days during World War II creating Victory Quilts in the house she lived in with her daughter in Sun City, Kansas, United States.
That was her “war effort”, Moss said, adding that her grandmother would simply eat meals and quilt all day.
Moss remembers her great-grandmother’s bedroom contained “a bed and a quilting frame and quilting supplies, and that was it”.
When Artha’s family members started going off to war, she created a Victory Quilt for each of them. Moss’ father received one, and it has been passed down and kept to show family.
The quilt is approximately twin-sized. Creating it by hand would take weeks or even months of constant work to complete, depending on the detail, Moss said.
This level of involvement in creating hand-stitched, needlework quilts was to be for public display. It was important that these quilts displayed show fine quilting techniques, have a story of why they were created and to be handed down through the family, “like fine art”, Moss said.
It was tradition in their Kansas community to spend their Sundays not working the land. The farmers’ and ranchers’ weekly “religious holiday” consisted of going to church, having Sunday dinner and then visiting other families in the area, Moss said.
When people would show up, the men and women would separate, and the women would look at the family’s quilts.
“There’s always the discussion inspired by why it was made, why they selected the pattern, what fabrics were used,” Moss explained.
She said that the type and color of fabric are the criteria used to date quilts, and so when looking at hers, it can be dated to WWII since “a Victory Quilt was red, white, blue” and the pattern was strong “like a flag”.
Artha spent her days and nights creating these quilts by hand, with the help of a neighbour for sewing, because she wanted to have them completed by the time her family members left for war for a very important reason.
“[The quilts] were meant for public display at a funeral,” Moss said.
While this seems to be a grotesque inspiration to make a quilt, it was very important to Artha to complete these quilts as her contribution to the war, Moss said, explaining that Artha made quilting her sole war effort because of her skill with the craft.
Artha was married in 1889 and lived on a ranch with her husband and five kids until her husband was struck by a train in 1908. She continued to run the ranch and raise her children, but she also was instrumental in building the town’s first church.
“People had to create beauty for their homes and churches, and that’s where quilting became an art form as well as utility,” Moss said, explaining the reasons these quilts are passed down and so important to family members throughout generations.
The art involved in quilting was about beauty and aesthetics, and Moss believes the beauty of quilting helps in times of emotional stress. World War II was certainly a time of emotional stress for many around the world.
Even though Artha was an artist in other areas, like painting, her contribution was making quilts because “she could envision what would happen if she had to have the funeral” of a family member in the church.
“The quilt would not only symbolise the patriotic character, but it would also have the sentiment of warmth that a quilt conveys,” Moss said, describing the reason for using a quilt as a coffin decoration.
Artha’s vision never became reality and the quilts were never used for by of the owners. But for Moss, a quilter herself, having the Victory Quilt and other family quilts helps her trace her family history throughout the years – and to remember her great grandmother, who died in 1948.
“Today, when I’m quilting on this antique 1930s quilting frame, if my stitches aren’t straight, I take them out,” she said, remembering when Aunt Ruth, one of Artha’s daughters, taught her how to sew. Her aunt would pull out her work if any stitches were crooked because “that was the standard of these women and this generation”.