[Editor’s note: Diane Miller shows how she has incorporated the story of an heirloom quilt into her family history.]
A Piece of My Family’s History through an Heirloom Quilt
Recently I registered our family’s 128-year-old heirloom quilt using The Heirloom Registry™, which is a new product from Houstory®. This online registry allows users to not only track their family heirlooms, but also helps to preserve and share the stories behind these precious items.
Every Heirloom Quilt Has a Backstory
When my sister became a snowbird, flying between Arizona and Washington State, she put a beautiful heirloom quilt (shown above) into my safekeeping with instructions to secure it in a fabric, not plastic, covering. It continues to reside with me as an honored ancestral artifact until it is ready to be passed along to other descendants of its fine seamstress.
I remember seeing this quilt around my family home while I was growing up. It was folded neatly and placed in the cedar chest with other woolen and fabric family treasures. As a little girl I would take it out of its secure hiding spot and stroke the soft brocades and rich velvets that made up the quilt. I would imagine what it would be like to have this colorful quilt on my bed to keep me warm in the cold Montana winters. But it wasn’t to be!
It was quite a few years later when it was placed in the safekeeping of my older sister, the quilter of the family. At that point I finally asked my mother where it came from and who made it.
Why Did Grandpa Have the Quilt?
My mother told me this story: “Your grandfather’s mother, my grandmother, sewed that quilt while she was carrying your grandfather.” (That would have been around 1885 in Chicago.) I asked, “Where did they get such beautiful velvets and brocades?”
She continued, “It is made from scrap pieces of upholstery fabric. I was probably named after her since her name was Agnes – Agnes (McComb) Caley. They moved from the Chicago area where they had a butcher shop to start a homestead in Montana around 1904. I guess she gave it to your grandfather as she aged. Then, as we consolidated your grandfather’s possessions when he moved to the nursing home, he gave it to me.”
Genealogy Sleuth: Researching a Family Heirloom Quilt
With that information I had a better understanding as to who made the quilt and the approximate time period of its creation. Through my research I was able to find two McComb women in the Chicago directories for 1880 and 1885. They were listed as working with “notions” and “worsteds” and I suspect that they were related—however, I have not been able to verify this information.
One important clue: the quilt is machine sewn, which I was surprised to discover since it was created during the early days of sewing machines. It would have been sewn on a vintage treadle machine, perhaps one similar to the 1885 model pictured here.
The quilt was not created using a set pattern; instead it is made from odd rectangles of vivid upholstery velvets and brocades. While it is starting to show its age, it only gets softer and more beautiful with time. Yes, a few pieces are frayed, but it wears that badge of age with pride.
Documenting the Quilt’s Story
For a Christmas project in October 2012, I created a cotton label describing the quilt’s history following these easy steps:
- Purchase inkjet fabric (backed so it will go through the printer) at a fabric or hobby store.
- Select a photo to scan for a label. I chose one of the quilter and her husband (shown above). Lucky for me the photo even had fancy designs on the edges!
- Use photo editing software such as Photoshop Elements to add text about the history of the quilt.
- Print the label on the treated cotton using an ink jet printer.
- Process the label according to the directions on the package to ensure that it remains age-safe and colorfast.
- Blind-stitch the label to the quilt for future generations of family members to enjoy.
Adding Heirloom Registry Labels to the Mix
When I received a selection of Heirloom Registry labels, I was not sure how to attach them to the quilt so they would in fact stay secure to the quilt. So I used a label suggested for furniture: a metal label with two holes that would normally be attached via small nails or screws to a piece of furniture. Instead, I used a button stitch to attach the Heirloom Registry label to the quilt label.
With the Heirloom Registry web page, I can continue to include the most recent history of the quilt. I can also document its many stories as well as how it has been put to use. The quilt has served as a backdrop for many photos on the Flip-Pal website, it has been included in a recent webinar and it even did duty in a Money magazine photo shoot!
The heirloom quilt makes a rich background for photos and now its history adds to that richness—a history that I’m very proud to share.
Did you enjoy this post? Please share with other family members!