The Christmas Quilt
The Christmas Quilt
I was lucky enough to grow up in a family and at a time and place in which quilts were an everyday part of life. I don’t really recall sleeping under store-bought blankets at all during those years. Quilts were how we kept warm—and the women in the family made them. Given those facts, I suppose it’s not unusual that some of the passed-down family lore is related to quilts and their construction. One such story has to do with what I call the Christmas quilt.
The youngest boy among my father’s five siblings had been saddled with a grand-sounding, mouthful of a name: Tolbert Commodore. He went by T.C. (wouldn’t you?), but the family called him Tot. Tot was an apt nickname for him, since it means small child and he remained “a little skinny feller” (as my dad used to say) all his life. What he lacked in size, however, Uncle Tot made up for in heart and gentle nature. Good things come in small packages.
When he was in school during the Depression years, Uncle Tot took a geometry class and was given an assignment to draft something with triangles. Unsure as to what to do, he asked his mother (my grandma), Pairlee, for help. Now Pairlee, being a quilter, always had a quilt in the works and several more in her head just waiting to get made. She asked Tot to draft a quilt block for her—one that involved triangles.
Uncle Tot had been born late in December, right before Christmas. Maybe that’s why Pairlee wanted him to draft a Pine Tree block for his geometry assignment so she could make him a quilt that was reminiscent of the Christmas season. She’d been saving some green fabric that she intended to combine with unbleached muslin to make a two-color quilt, and the Pine Tree seemed a perfect choice.
As is often the case with stories that are handed down, some of the details get muddied in the retelling. When I was younger, I always thought that the block Uncle Tot drafted was his original design and nobody ever told me anything different. I know now that “his” Pine Tree block is an old pattern, one having multiple published sources (Ladies Art Company, Ruby McKim, Kansas City Star), the earliest of which Barbara Brackman in her Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns dates to 1901. Pairlee could certainly have had access to one or more of those.
Whether Pairlee showed Uncle Tot a picture of the block in a magazine or newspaper or whether she guided him to create something that he thought was his own, I have no way of knowing since neither Pairlee nor Uncle Tot nor anyone else who new the facts is still alive. What I do have, though, is the Pine Tree quilt that Pairlee made for Tot from the block he drafted for her. I always bring it out at Christmas time, and it always makes me think of them both.
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