Heirloom quilts – those that are handed down from one generation to another –have a special place in families.
Their creations often have stories attached to them, or its fabric tells the stories of yesteryear.
The quilt show currently running through end of May at HD SOUTH, the home of the Gilbert Historical Museum, displays many such treasures. It is open free of charge on Memorial Day.
The all-volunteer quilting bee within the museum accepts community quilts to complete and helps raise funds for the organization.
Over the years, it has basted many heirlooms. Basting means making backing, adding batting and attaching the quilt top to complete the layers of a quilt. This is an important step in the process and is done by hand.
Avid quilter Darlene Reid is one such member whose quilts have stories attached.
Guided by her imagination, Reid gives life to the classic quilt block pattern Sunbonnet Sue, which became popular in the early 20th century and depicts a hooded frontier girl.
In one quilt called “Sunbonnet Julie,” she depicts her daughter Kim Davis (now a grandmother) when she was a teenager. The quilt was hand-quilted by the bee, and contains fabric from dresses that Julie used to wear.
“She had a mind of her own. She wanted to pick out her own clothes. One day I bought her a skirt and I gave it to her and she said ‘oh that’s nice’ and she put it in the closet,” Reid said. “A few weeks later, she came out on her way to school and she said, ‘oh drop this off at Goodwill.’”
“I looked into the bag and she had put that skirt in there,” Reid added. “The skirt has come back to haunt her.”
Davis now lives in Ohio and the two of them have worked together on many quilting projects.
“Sunbonnet Darlene” is dressed according to a pattern from a 1933 Capper’s Farmer magazine. “These girls are dressed exactly the way I dressed. I didn’t wear the hats, but the dresses, the shoes, the socks are similar,” Reid said.
In other iterations, Sunbonnet Sue is a witch, and is quilted with a black cat, pumpkins and a border of Halloween décor skeletons.
“That’s what she does to Sunbonnet Sue; she morphs her into other personalities,” said Kathy Lester, another volunteer.
Quilter Laurie Abdo displays a “Grandmother’s Flower Garden” patterned quilt that was completed by the Gilbert group. Abdo’s mom made it in the 1980s when Abdo was abroad.
“I was completely unaware of what she had made until about 14 years ago, when she first showed it to me and she asked me to pack it and send it to Texas to be quilted by a friend of hers,” she said.
But her friend couldn’t do her bidding, and the quilt was returned and boxed until her mom passed in 2015.
“The quilt top finally came home with me, with all the rest of mom’s and dad’s possessions,” Abdo said.
Periodically, she would search for someone who could complete the work. She even tried to get it machine-quilted, but was advised not to.
That’s when Abdo came across the Gilbert group. The volunteers accepted the project, but she had to wait nearly two years.
One day, she went to the museum with her children and her camera. “I realized that my kids had not seen it, and I needed to document what it looked like, and where it was; just in case something happened to me, it would not be lost to the family,” Abdo said.
“I was thrilled to walk into the room where the quilters work and see mom’s work spread before me,” she added.
Abdo was so impressed by the group, its happy camaraderie and industriousness that she volunteered to join them. She had some sewing and embroidery experience during her youth and felt that she could learn the rest.
“The ladies were very welcoming to me, the newcomer, and they had questions about mom, the maker of the top we were working on,” she said, adding:
“The whole experience over the next few months was heartwarming and cathartic. Each time I worked on the quilt I recognized fabrics from my childhood.”
She came across a fabric patterned with pink suns that used to be a sundress when she was about four years old; there were others from her childhood, clothes that her mom made into her teenage years and those that she herself had stitched.
“Some I had forgotten about completely until I sat staring at it and putting needle and thread through it. Each was a happy surprise that brought back memories. There were also pieces from dresses I had made mom, and those also brought back happy memories,” Abdo recalled.
Iva Ruth is another quilter who gave long hours to the bee. She passed recently. Her family donated a selection of fabrics that belonged to her and Abdo made a quilt out of the samples and called it “Thank You, Iva.”
Most of the quilts worked on are from the Valley, but sometimes they come from other states.
Candace Miller of Three Forks, Montana sent a “Grandmother’s Flower Garden” patterned quilt that was made in the 1960s by the members of the Flat River Christian Church in Flat River, Missouri.
“My mother’s first cousin helped make the quilt top and gave it to my mother as a gift. I inherited the quilt top and cherished it but wanted it quilted by hand,” Miller said.
A friend mentioned the Gilbert Historical Museum hand quilters and Miller sent it there.
“Their group completed hand quilting my quilt, a queen size, within 10 months. The finished product is beautifully done with love and care in every stitch and now I must carefully bind it by hand,” she said.
Reid, for whom quilting continues to play a significant role, has embedded her family history in quilts.
One features her great-uncle Harry who died from the flu epidemic 100 years ago. At 18, he had his picture taken for Christmas, came home and told his mother he didn’t feel very well. “And he got sicker and died just like that,” Reid said.
The quilt has masculine fabric and incorporates a newspaper clip with a flu advisory and a handwritten note from Harry to his girlfriend that reads “good luck to all from your loving friend Harry.”
Reid’s Grandma Jones quilt features the woolen fabrics cut out from winter clothing, including Uncle Ed’s uniform from the Korean War and school teacher Aunt Lola’s good quality clothing and also incorporates her wedding and 50th wedding anniversary photos, along with some poetry.
Another poignant quilt features her grandfather Poppy Slattery and grandmother Laura Belle, who gave birth to eight children, six of whom survived. Donald and Gladys, the two toddlers who passed of common illnesses at 18 months and nine months, are memorialized.
“Their pictures reminded me of angels,” Reid said.
Details: The quilt show runs to Memorial Day (entrance free on that day) at HD. Museum admission applies on other days.
Call 480-926-1577 or hdsouth.org