Dutch Dolls and Sunbonnet Sues From the Past
After a friend saw the quilts on my blog (all both of them… tee hee…), she asked if I would look at a quilt gifted to her parents on the occasion of their marriage and see if it had the potential to be salvaged. The quilt has been well loved by many members of the family over the years since their wedding, and this year, her parents will celebrate their 60th anniversary.
That question, and being granted temporary custody of this quilt to evaluate its life-potential has raised more questions than I (and she) imagined. So I thought I’d see if I could compile some of those questions here, and share the thoughts, in case some of your friends have a well loved quilt that has great sentimental value, and asks you to give it a look, and see if it can be resuscitated.
The consensus of opinion about this charming quilt, known variously as "Dutch Doll" or "Sunbonnet Sue," is that it definitely has life left in it. The main decision that has to be made is similar to the quality of life question that many of us in healthcare encounter. It would seem that many of the things that lent it the charm that cause my friend to love this quilt (aside from the fact that it has been in her family since before she was born) are part of what led to its current condition. What kind of life will it have in the future? That of a pampered decoration, languishing across the foot of a guest bed, to be ohhhhed and ahhhed over as it’s being refolded, or will it be used by visiting grand or great-grandchildren, when they need a special cover – perhaps when they are feeling ill, or homesick, being tugged and pulled and hugged for many years to come?
The quilt was "birthed" rather than bound – to those of you who aren’t quilters, that means that the top and back were sewn together, right sides together with the batting, then turned right side out. Presto – you have finished edges, much like the edges on a collar. That makes for a faster finish (and believe me, I know about NOT finishing things enough to cherish ways to speed up the process!) initially, but leaves the area where wear shows first with little reinforcement. Imagine how frayed the edge of your collar would be after 60 years of washing, wearing, and loving. The quilts that my grandmother made were all bound, meaning a separate "binding" was sewn over the edge of the "sandwich" after the quilting was done, and the edges all evened up. This is not to say that the "birthing" method is bad – just that it is not as durable as binding. Nannie always used a double "French" binding – meaning there were two layers of fabric covering those raw edges, and even so – most of the quilts I loved as a child had their edges worn to a frazzle. How I wish I’d known, at the time, that it was possible to remove the old binding, and sew on another – or even to sew another over the worn one.
Another thing that has caused the batting to turn to "cotton balls," which are oozing out where the edges have let go is that the piece was not heavily quilted. I wasn’t around 60 years ago – so don’t know what kind of batting was available at the time, however, most modern cotton batts recommend quilting no further apart than 2-4" – depending on the brand, and whether it has "scrim" or is needle-punched. I don’t pretend to know which is best – merely that, as a largely self-taught quilter, one of the things I have learned is to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations. Quilting is what hold the layers of the "quilt sandwich" together. The less quilting present, the more movement there is between the layers when it is pulled on (say – up over a person, after they get in bed underneath it), or wrapped around them, not to mention the stresses of laundering. There is probably a law of physics which would explain the stressing caused on the different layers by motion not being inhibited by more "dense" quilting; but I think it’s simpler just to quote all those quilting magazines and say "follow manufacturer’s recommendations on quilting distances."
Some of the sashing is badly stained, and some sashing pieces have developed splits from the threads of the fabric weakening by being folded along the same lines for too long (and don’t feel guilty if you are reading this and haven’t re-folded your quilts lately – I haven’t either, and I now know better!). The backing could be used to replace the sashing, the outer most of which was
the layer sewn to the backing when the quilt was "birthed." Vintage muslin can be found to replace the background of the one block that has staining issues, and vintage yardage can be found to replace the backing. I have vintage ’dresses’ for the dolls, perhaps even similar in color to the one worn away. But when all that is done, the fabric in the top will still be 60 years old, and who knows how many more years is left in fabrics of that age?
Then there are the "purists" – the ones who say that the original fabric should remain in place, and have matching patches appliqued over the worn spots, or even coverings of tulle. If this quilt were to have the life of leisure, languishing on the foot of the guest bed, only to be removed if someone were coming to actually USE the bed, I might agree. But I don’t see this as that type of quilt. Perhaps it is because my middle name is Sue, or because my "Nannie" always wore a sunbonnet when she was outside on the farm, but this quilt tells me that it is a quilted hug, that I hope will be felt by many generations to come, not a lady of leisure.
The "dolls" can be removed from the background blocks – actually the background can be cut away, preserving the buttonhole stitching that holds the pieces together, and then they could be appliqued to new fabric. There are reproduction "30’s" fabrics that can be found to replace the worn away dress. The bleached "domestic" (that’s what Nannie always called bleached muslin – and I love to recall her words about quilts) is easily found, and is stronger than what was available 60 years ago. The bubblegum pink sashing and backing, likewise, are available in modern or reproduction versions.
The quilt could be restored largely as it was originally, with quilting only around the applique parts, however, some years from now, some other daughter or granddaughter would be faced with deciding the best way to preserve this charming quilt – to maintain the loving memories that it contains in its fibrous being. Or, like the 6 Million Dollar Man, it can be made better, stronger, faster… Ohhhhhh, I got carried away there for a minute… The charming parts can be salvaged, and it can be made into a "brand new quilt" utilizing the technology of today to recreate the original feel and, largely, the original look of the quilt, in a manner that should weather the years a little more easily.
But those are decisions I don’t have to make. It is not my quilt – it has only come to visit me for a short time, and perhaps to inspire me to find the charming Sunbonnet Sue blocks found in my aunt’s belongings, and turn them into quilted hugs for some of my favorite female relatives. (Egads, that would mean deciding how to set them together… what color sashing would be best for Stacy? For Emily? I don’t want mine to have pink sashing – maybe I should use scrappy sashing… maybe I should use 9patch and snowballs for alternate blocks… maybe I should just pet the blocks, and fold them lovingly away for another day….) One of the ladies on Stashbuster asked if we "overplan" or "overthink" projects – and I must plead guilty to both. So I think I will just think of those blocks, and overthink and overplan those quilts while my friend, and her mother decide what, if anything, they want done with this quilted hug.
Technorati Tags: Life and Ramblings, Quilting and Hobbies (wishing I had ’spare’ time), Dutch Doll quilt, Sunbonnet Sue quilt, Quilt restoration, Quilt re-creation, Overplanning, Overthinking, Quilted hugs, "birthing" a quilt