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Author Marlene Parkin once wrote: “Quilts are masterpieces of the heart and windows into women’s history. They possess a magic that will never die, for all of life’s hopes and fears, loves and hates have been sewn into them.”
Quilts are timeless. Crafted from bits and pieces of shirts, coats, overalls and dresses, they serve as palpable memories of the past.
The origin of quilting is somewhat uncertain although the oldest example of patchwork is an Egyptian queen’s canopy dated around 960 B.C.
During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, quilting became a favorite past-time among both peasants and the aristocracy. Quilts were cherished and were often recorded in ledger books or listed in wills.
However, it was American pioneer women whose quilting needles created a way of life that influenced the culture which embraced both the family and the community.
In early American history, there seemed to be no other form of art that brought so many women together to work and to instruct young girls on the importance of sewing.
By the time a young woman married, the needle was her constant companion and she took great pride in the intricate needlework of her quilts.
As early as the age of 4, a little girl would hold a delicate needle between somewhat clumsy fingers to piece together two to four blocks of plain or calico fabric.
One Kentucky woman described this early childhood experience:
“Before I was 3-years-old, I was started at piecing a quilt - patchwork, you know. My stint was at first only two blocks a day, but these were sewn together with the greatest care or they were unraveled and done over.”
Quilting has been a way of life for Owen County women for centuries and this skill has been passed down from generation to generation.
The Owen County Extension Homemakers offer classes on quilting in a continuing effort to preserve this rich, cherished tradition.
A quilt trail traveling through Kentucky made stops in Owen County as over 100 quilt squares have been painted on barns throughout the area. Each has a story behind it and holds special significance for the family whose property displays its variegated colors. Quilt patterns were given names such as Star of Bethlehem, Little Red Schoolhouse, Wedding Ring, Lost Ship, Horseshoe, Bear’s Claw, and Wild Geese. But the most popular early colonial pattern was undoubtedly The Log Cabin. Whatever pattern a woman chose reflected her love, belief, and spirit; and all were interwoven together by tiny delicate stitches.
One of her most memorable childhood past-times was playing with paper dolls; and for Rebekka Seigel those memories were the impetus for stitching 13 quilts honoring women she admired and relating their stories through garments.
Rebekka was the guest speaker last week at the historical society meeting. The women featured on her quilts included Kentucky’s First Lady Phyllis George, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ella Fitzgerald, Jean Ritchie, Lucy Martin Lewis, Pearl Buck, and Lucille Ball; and the lives of these women left unforgettable marks on the world around them.
With the help of a friend, Rebekka finished all the quilts in six years. The woman in each quilt was painstakingly created and hand-sewn and her quilted garments added finishing touches of color and life. Rebekka related personal stories of these women and illustrated the significant contributions they made in the lives of others.
Aunt Jane of Kentucky pieced many quilts in her day. When asked why she loved quilting she wrote “when I’m dead and gone there ain’t anybody goin’ to think o’ the floors I’ve swept and the tables I’ve scrubbed, and the old clothes I’ve patched . . . but when one of my grandchildren sees one o’ these quilts, they’ll think about Aunt Jane, and wherever I am, I’ll know I ain’t forgotten.”
Someone once said that a quilt is” like reading a history book. Its needlework contains words of wisdom, imagination, philosophy, religion, realism, joy, sorrow, life, death, friendship and love; and if we could read between the tiny stitches, what stories they would tell.”