Monday, January 16, 2012

Refurbishing Grandma's quilt

This year for Christmas I refurbished a quilt for my sister-in-law.  It was made by her grandmother back in the 1960s and was on her bed throughout her entire childhood.  It showed.  One look at the dinner plate-sized holes spewing wool batting and the split seams, and you knew it was time to make the hard decision; dog bed or major overall?  Over the past few years, I've saved two quilts from going the dog bed route.  And one wool quilt I actually took back from the dog and refurbished.  Two other quilts I reduced into throw pillows and doll blankets.  I'm just a sucker when it comes to things like this.  Grandma spent too many hours sewing; the quilt spent too many hours keeping my sister-in-law warm; it deserved to live on in one way or another.

The original quilt was a double bed size, knotted with yarn and two-sided.   The "top" was made up of sampler blocks.  Each different and fitted together with a common background fabric.  Notice the blue block in the upper right corner.  That used to be a basket block and measured 12" square.  Now it's almost completely ripped out.


The sampler blocks were beautiful but in very bad shape.   Most of the quilt was cotton and so thin that it had just deteriorated away to tissue paper.  

The "back" of the quilt was made up of bowties set with alternate blocks.  The bowtie pattern was very popular during the Depression although none of the fabrics dated back that far.  These blocks were comprised of a solid bowtie paired with a stripe, check or plaid. 

Let me explain my thoughts when tackling a project like this.  I can appreciate the history and sentimentality of this piece, but I won't spend hours refurbishing it simply to hang it over the back of a couch.  I firmly believe in using my vintage pieces, no matter how precious.  I like to think that Grandma would want it that way.  Her generation had more common sense than to just let something fade away unused.  

Step one was to completely deconstruct the quilt.  I did not rip a single stitch.  I took my shears, cut out all the knots, picked out the wool batting and cut out the quilt blocks that were worth saving, leaving a 1/4" seam allowance where I could.  Approximately half of the bowtie blocks had to be thrown away and 2/3 of the sampler blocks.  Then all the pieces that I wanted to reuse were put through the washing machine.  In my thinking, this is the final durability test.  If a fabric can't handle a gentle cycle, then it's not worth reusing.

This is what I ended up with, a stack of frayed blocks.  Some still needed a seam repaired or a hole patched shut, but for the most part, these were up to the challenge of another 50 years of use.

I used my rotary cutter to size down all the bowtie blocks to a 6" square.  Grandma had made these 6 1/2" originally so I wasn't losing much, and there were not points being lost either.  Some of the blocks that were more akin to tissue paper than fabric were completely reinforced on the backside with iron-on pellon. 

Originally the sampler blocks were all different sizes, and that's how they trimmed up as well.  Unfortunately, there were many points, on the stars and the green leaf block, that were lost in squaring these up.  It couldn't be helped.  Refurbishing is not a lesson in perfectionism.

And here is the reconstructed quilt, measuring approximately 55" x 70".

The nine sampler blocks make up the centerpiece.  I sashed them with muslin.  Looking back, I should have put a skinny border of muslin around the entire center.  But at the time, I was more concerned with getting a finished size that accommodated the strips of bowties.

The border consists of the bowtie blocks alternated with a black and white stripe, similar to the original fabric.  The quilt is layered with a wool batting and knotted with white yarn.

My sister-in-law was happy to have her quilt back again, and I'm glad that she'll be able to use it.  Last year my husband made her an oak quilt rack so when this quilt gets too loved, it can find a home on that rack.  But I hope that won't be for many years to come.  Grandma started something good, and it's up to us to keep it going.


  1. Looks like brand new! You have more patience than I, I would have sent it to the dog bed.

  2. Your so right, our grands would be aghast if we just repaired it to hang up somewhere to be pretty. You have really done a lovely job reworking this quilt. I would say also that you were very courageous to begin the project and hopefully very rewarded in feelings when you were done. I just posted about some heriloom blocks that I was given a while back, if you get a chance come over for a visit.
    have a great week!

  3. How wonderful! You did a lovely job of refurbishing it!! :)

  4. That turned out to be so pretty!
    Hmmm... you've given me inspiration. I have an old quilt I bought back in my very early years of marriage "Wedding Ring" pattern. I bought it from FingerHut! But the Sentimentality is just the same. I'd love to make repairs and put that back on Mine and Honey's old iron bed.

    You did a wonderful job and kudos to you---it isn't even yours! You did it for someone else. that is a sweet gift.


  5. What a wonderful, sentimental gift! It is doubly special now, as two family members have put their love and craftswomanship into this lovely quilt. Great work! I truly admire your patience.

  6. Wow, that's impressive! So many people are quick to toss old quilts or back them away where they can't be damaged any further. Good for you, giving this one new life!

  7. Thanks for all your compliments, Ladies! My mom just shakes her head when I take on projects like these. It can be tedious, but I love to keep the history alive.

  8. So neat! My Great Granny cranked out quilts like nobody's business and I cherish all of them. When they started to get ripped I packed them all away afraid to lose them. You've inspired me to get them out and repair them. She would have been very unhappy to know they were packed away and not being used until they were worn out!

  9. Congratulations on your accomplishment. That's fantastic. My mother would be the one shaking her head as well. True product of the 50's, she loves to throw out and buy new. I'd be the one trying to save the quilt. I think it looks great!

  10. Wow what a wonderful job you did saving the family quilt!


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