Searching the antique shop’s crowded shelves like a detective, I spotted an interesting wicker basket. Heaped with linens. Digging down, I pulled out a stack of vintage quilt squares, held together with a safety pin. The pile consisted of already pieced blocks in antique white, contrasted with fabric in a faded red and gray pattern. All the blocks matched, except one. That square was similar – but the piecing deviated slightly from the rest. I wondered…could that be a Humility Block? The imperfect block left in an Amish quilt to show that only God is perfect? But wasn’t that a myth?
Though I liked the story of the Humility Block, research told me no quilter needed to leave an imperfection on purpose because no finished quilt was without mistakes. Besides, this quilt didn’t look at all Amish in design. The material was lightweight and limp, unlike any I’d seen on a quilt. More like an opaque voile curtain. It reminded me of a dad’s old pajamas worn way past their prime. Later I learned the squares were out of shirting fabric – fine cotton that’s often an 1800s reproduction.
I swiped up those old squares with delight, handing over a fiver for the lot. At home, I laid them out. The pattern appeared to be a sort of Jacob’s Ladder. And the odd block out really looked the part, which was a mystery. Another thing puzzled me. Every piece of fabric was attached by hand sewing, stitches long enough to look utility-style. Perhaps they were basted, meant to be reinforced on a sewing machine. Or…maybe the squares were much older. The idea made me smile. I pictured a pioneer woman riding in her Conestoga wagon, wielding her needle with skill in spite of the rocky ride, readying a coverlet for completion once she arrived at her new home. There she could strengthen those seams with a little time on the treadle.
Still, it was so fragile. Would it hold together if I left the squares in their original state? A half-hearted purist, I felt I couldn’t go over someone’s laborious work with a quick zip on my machine. Would that be right for the integrity of the blocks? For the hopes of the initial quilter and her quilt plan?
Not sure what to do, I put them aside for a time. For a few years. Until I was invited on a special family trip to Alaska and needed a project for the long ride over the Alcan Highway. In a motor home. The (almost) Jacob’s Ladder quilt-top needed a lot of work. I had a lot of time on my hands. So the squares, my trusty thimble, extra needles, and a spool of new cotton thread came with me.
In my imagination, I was like the pioneer woman. In my modern covered wagon, bound for territories never before seen. Unlike the woman of my daydreams, rather than created out of necessity, my needlework only served to keep my hands busy across the miles. Between glances out the window at the scenery, I wondered about the original quilt maker, adding to her stitches where they had come away with my own, making the corners match as precisely as I could. Until the entire quilt-top was sturdy and sewn together. In a way, she rode with me on that long trip, rather like a companion in a quilting bee across time.
I wonder if my unknown pioneer friend would have liked the final outcome of her work-in-progress? I sure liked thinking about her story.