I get Penny Halgren's "How-to-Quilt" newsletter and today she had a bit of history of quilts. For those of you who might be interested --
It may seem a little gruesome to us these days, but once upon a time graveyard quilts were very popular.
Have you ever heard of a graveyard quilt?
Sometimes they are referred to as cemetery or coffin quilts. They were created with a large, dark (often black) panel in the center of the quilt. Small coffin shapes were appliquéd into the borders, each with a family member’s name embroidered on it. When that family member died, the quilter moved the appliqué from the border into the center of the quilt and added the date of death as stitch work. The dark panel in the center was the “cemetery.”
Certainly it does seem a little morbid to us today, but this was popular in the mid 1800s. At that particular time, cemeteries were growing in popularity in rural communities. Until then, most family members were buried in clusters of graves on the family property.
When cemeteries became popular final resting places, the grounds served two purposes. They were a burial site for the dead, but were kept nicely – almost park like – for the living to enjoy as well. So, at that particular period of time, there was nothing morbid about a cemetery.
Some of these old quilts were made using a favorite quilt block pattern with the large black panel added to the center. Some more elaborate ones were created to resemble a cemetery, with a quilted design of an entry gate or a pieced picket fence surrounding the dark center piece.
These quilts were respected as important family information way back before many paper records of death even existed. This is just another example of how quilts help preserve history.
Is this something that we as quilters would adapt today? Probably not, for many reasons. For one, we have the paper records easily at our fingertips. Another reason is that it just doesn’t seem fitting to display a quilt with the names of living family members on the coffins.
But the same idea could make a unique ancestry quilt, using only deceased people on the quilt. Perhaps the borders, then, could list names of family members who hailed from each deceased member. Another border idea is to embroider in marriage and birth facts about each deceased member.
Or, you could use the same idea behind the graveyard quilt to make a unique Halloween quilt. Make interactive coffins in the border without embroidering any names on them. Stitch them on so that the coffin “lid” can be opened to reveal a silly monster appliquéd inside or an embroidered skeleton. Have coffins inside the graveyard center, too, that also have silly (or scary) motifs under the coffin “lid.”
The graveyard quilt is one type of mourning quilt. Mourning quilts were popular in the mid to late 1800s. Aside from the graveyard quilt, other mourning quilts don’t have a particular theme or design associated with the term. After the death of a loved one, quilters (at this point in time, predominantly women) would work on a quilt to help them grieve.
A quilter might choose to make a quilt using a deceased person’s favorite color or favorite pattern. Or, the woman might simply quilt any old quilt block pattern just to keep her mind occupied and to help her work through the grief process. Most of the quilting back then relied on groups of women, so that fellowship also offered help in the healing process.
In a way, mourning quilts are still around today. Some of us still quilt to help us think or give us time to process events or think through solutions to problems of everyday life.
Coffin Quilt from SewScary.com
©2010, Penny Halgren
Penny is a quilter of more than 29 years who seeks to interest new quilters and provide them with the resources necessary to create beautiful quilts.
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