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My Grandma’s Hands: A Crafting Tradition with Purpose

Grandma Ruby sewed quilts made to survive a winter, protect vulnerable bodies, and tell stories. By Lori Caldwell.

When I was a little girl, my family would visit my grandma Ruby every summer. She had a well-sized farmhouse with plenty of room for all of us, but I always wanted to sleep with her in her room. I’m sure my memories have been colored with time, but I remember my grandma’s room filled with light. A lovely glow always fell on her large brass bed.

I loved jumping on that bed. It was soft and buoyant with so many layers of blankets and a large, multi-colored quilt with hand-tied yarn bows at the center of each square. I remember sleeping under that quilt. It was so heavy. It felt like I was moving in slow motion when I would try to turn over underneath it.

I remember sleeping under that quilt. It was so heavy. It felt like I was moving in slow motion when I would try to turn over underneath it.

My grandma made scrap quilts. Quilts made out of old jeans and tattered shirts worn out from doing farm work, or Sunday dresses that were no longer fine enough to be worn to service. She learned to make them as a young girl, the youngest and only girl of 14. On the farm, her job was to cook four meals a day—for her 13 brothers who worked the land—clean, and do all the sewing and mending and quilting with her mother.

Quilting was a necessity. A craft learned to serve a purpose. Quilts were made with whatever material you salvaged and had on hand. They were made to have weight and provide enough warmth to shield a family from the poorly insulated houses that many African American families like my grandma’s lived in at the time.

They didn’t hang on walls. They were not made to set a trend, or be photographed, or win an award. They were made to survive a winter, protect vulnerable bodies, and make the best of very limited resources.

Yet, they were also beautiful.

I remember running my fingers across my grandma Ruby’s quilts. I loved all the different textures—soft corduroy and velvet, worn denim and flannel, contrasted against squares that had a smooth and silky feel. And, those yarn bows! I never understood why they were there, but I loved them. They were fuzzy and bright, and I would rub my cheeks against them.

They didn’t hang on walls. They were not made to set a trend, or be photographed, or win an award. They were made to survive a winter, protect vulnerable bodies, and make the best of very limited resources.

We had a collection of my grandma Ruby’s quilts at home, but we rarely used them. Growing up in Southern California, we didn’t need such heavy coverings for our beds, but she made them for us anyway. These quilts were a bit different. They had themes and told stories. These were gift quilts. Still utilitarian, but made with the recipient in mind, made for sharing family stories and keeping traditions alive—passed down from one generation to the next.

And, yep, they also had those yarn bows!

My grandma Ruby passed away over 20 years ago, but my mother still has her quilts folded neatly and stored in her linen closet. Even though they are put away and not used, they still tell a story and have passed down a tradition.

Now, it’s my mother’s turn. She makes the quilts, sending me one every year for Christmas or a birthday. She sends them to my sister and her family. She sends one to a cousin when they have a child. She makes one for her own bed to keep her warm and protected.

My mother’s quilts are beautiful and purposeful. They are made with love. Each morning when I make my bed, I feel so connected to my family that I now live so far away from. But, her quilts are different from my grandma’s. My mom is able to shop for the exact fabric and prints she likes. She gets the proper batting and uses an amazing computerized sewing machine.

And, there are no more yarn bows.

My mother’s quilts are beautiful and purposeful. They are made with love. Each morning when I make my bed, I feel so connected to my family that I now live so far away from.

Though I’m a creative crafter and sewist, I have yet to try quilting. If I’m honest, it’s because I just wasn’t very interested. When I was young, it seemed like something that only grandmas did. As I got older, I wanted to make “cool” things. In my young adulthood, I wanted to make “art,” or write. To be recognized for work that I considered to be more sophisticated.

But, here I am now, living in a time when things feel so disconnected, when we’ve distanced ourselves long before we were required to be socially distanced. I can’t imagine a more beautiful, artistic form—with high and profound purpose—than to create something with my own hands with the resources around me, something which provides warmth and security and protection for the most vulnerable.

I want to create my own scrap quilt. I don’t want to hang it on a wall. I don’t want to photograph it. I want it to find harmony in discordant textures and colors.

I want to create my own scrap quilt. I don’t want to hang it on a wall. I don’t want to photograph it. I want it to find harmony in discordant textures and colors. I want it to tell a story in the old clothes that I’ve worn and worked in. I want it to reflect the light I remember from my childhood memories of that special room and that bed I loved to jump on. I want it to continue in the tradition of my grandmother and her ancestors. I want it to show the gratitude I feel for my grandma Ruby and my mother, to be strong enough to last for generations to come and carry on long after I’ve gone.

And, I want it to have yarn bows!

Baz
Devon
Witt

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