The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
Of Mourning Quilts (And Me)
As far as tough times go, the end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019 were pretty bad for this Quilt Scout. Money worries, family problems, health issues, a broken heart, the death of a dog — pretty much every area of my life was getting hammered by misfortune, unrest, and/or grief. Things are way better now, but I won’t soon forget the devastation of that period of depression.
One way I tried to pull myself out of my depression was to sew.
It’s true that I’m a quiltmaker and sewing is something I do regularly, but when I was so down, the impulse to start a quilt project came from a more urgent place. I decided I wanted to do some needle-turned appliqué (something I had flirted with over the past years but I hadn’t yet committed) and I wanted to make a quilt with words on it. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was enough of a plan to just start sewing, which is the only thing I wanted to do — and at times it felt like the only thing I could do.
I didn’t know it then, but I was making a kind of mourning quilt.
Crazy quilts have often contained mementos from a deceased individual. Image: Wikipedia.
Mourning quilts, or grief quilts, are quilts that are made to memorialize a person, a time, or an event. You don’t have to look too hard to find mourning quilts (as well as certain clothing items, coverlets, shrouds, etc. in the same vein) because pulling a needle and thread through cloth is a natural impulse for human beings who find themselves in pain over death or tragedy.
Left: This Ladies Home Journal from 1892 contains an advertisement for fabric specifically to be used in projects by women “in the deepest mourning.” Image: Wikipedia.
Mourning quilts really had a moment in America in the 19th century, and many people hear “mourning quilt” and think of quilts from this period. With high infant mortality rates and people dying in large numbers from then-incurable diseases like tuberculosis and consumption, there was simply more death happening more frequently (and publicly) at this time in American history. In many cases, when someone died, it was customary to have an open-casket funeral in the house.
It was not morbid or creepy to do this — nor was it morbid or creepy to make a quilt with the birthdate and death date of the person as its main focus. Other mourning quilts were not so explicit; some were simply made with somber-colored fabrics or stitched with a modest epithet at a corner, or made from scraps of a person’s clothing. Whatever the style of the quilt, the quiltmaker’s objective was the same: Make a quilt to memorialize [insert person here] and in the process, maybe feel better.
The AIDS quilt, now with over 64,000 panels represents the mourning by millions. Image: Wikipedia.
Mourning quilts can be made to apprehend grief over events, too; the 9/11 quilt is a good example of this. The AIDS Memorial Quilt is without question the world’s largest mourning quilt, memorializing both an event (the AIDS crisis in the US and worldwide) as well as individuals. The Quilt now contains more than 64,000 panels — the quilt weighs over 52 tons at this point — every panel its own mourning quilt stitched by a person grieving the loss of a loved one who died of HIV/AIDS.
Why does sewing help when we’re sad? Why did a mother in the late 18th century make a baby quilt for a stillborn baby? Why would someone cut the clothes of their deceased lover into scraps and then sew them back together again? Why did I reach for my sewing basket this winter when I was too sad to read a book, too sad to go outside, too sad to see how, when, or if things were going to get better?
Right: This lady looks pretty sad at her sewing machine. Maybe she’s making a mourning quilt … or maybe she’s just trying to go around a curve. Image: Flickr Commons
You could say that the physical repetition in sewing is “meditative” and meditation can be healthy in times of loss. You could say that making a quilt is “calming,” and it can be, though I really struggled turning some of those tight corners, let me tell you. Maybe people make mourning quilts because working on a one actually takes your attention off your grief, since you’re focused on the project, not the loss that inspired the project? Honestly, I just don’t know. Answers to the Big Questions are above my paygrade.
Feeling sad? Want to sew? There are dozens of shades of solid black available to quilters —
inquire at your local quilt shop today! Image: Wikipedia.
But there’s good news — and people in mourning are usually open to hearing some, right?
You don’t have to know why sewing helps when you’re sad. If it does help, that’s great. That’s all you need. Well, you will have to get off the couch and get your needle and thread.
Just start there.