“You girls are good at running a big broken field,” my grandma says, watching us dodge between the sewing machine, ironing board, and each other. Her brown, tapered eyes light up, radiating a childlike joy she has yet to lose.
It is a bright and crisp January day when the family matriarchs descend on a Connecticut cape house to take part in the centuries-old community tradition of the quilting bee. For generations, quilting bees have provided women space to gather, talk, and contribute their artistic capabilities to making a quilt, often as a way of completing the project more quickly than would be possible alone. At ninety-six years old, my grandma, Jinx, has the most important job of the weekend: making coffee. Across the street at the local marina, boats rock sleepily on the Long Island Sound. Their white covers gleam in the sun while seagulls float above, unaware of the chaos inside.
“Dong…dong…” The soft, usually charming toll of my Uncle Alan’s grandfather clock now sounds impatient, reminding me we only have three days and no written instructions. Luckily, my mom, Susie, and her two older sisters, Annie and Joanie, have planned this quilt for decades and can rely on their years of experience and inherited wisdom. Each sister grapples with the “family curse”: a head of thick, curly, frizzy hair which grow bigger and wilder as the day goes on. Hair clips simply give up, launching themselves to opposite ends of the room.
As the Hadcock women bustle between rooms and floors of the house, their voices grow louder and start to sync in cadence, which typically lasts until the minivans are packed and it’s time for the families to head back to their own homes. We reorganize our work often to avoid mistakes.
“Wait, is that even pink?”
“Dark, medium, light.”
“That’s weird. Is it my eyes? What’s going on?”
“I’m coming through with my coffee.”
“3 1/2 and a smidgen.”
“Is this long enough? Did we just screw up?”
I settle into my designated couch corner surrounded by pins, scissors, split pink threads, and reading glasses to practice embroidering my name in a hoop. Joanie and her trusty Singer sewing machine, circa 1969, bask in light below a picture window. She comes to check on my handiwork. I’ve only finished the first letter, S. “Oh, you dope,” Joanie says, dismayed. Apparently, stitching the tie-off knot in front of the fabric is a rookie mistake. I try again on the letter A, realizing I better improve quickly if I want to be allowed to help with all the embroidery work we have to do.
My sister, Katie, is also a quiltmaker and is expecting a baby girl named Annabelle in June—my parents’ first grandchild. This 100 Wishes quilt, designed by my mother, will be embroidered with blessings, wishing Annabelle a long and happy life. These blessings were sent in by family members, living in the United States and France, and range from “perseverance” to “cookies.” Containing the luck, energy, and love of her ancestors, this quilt will welcome and celebrate Annabelle’s new life, wrapping her in warmth and strength as she begins her journey.
Annabelle’s 100 Wishes quilt joins a cultural legacy in my Michigan family, spanning at least five generations and more than 130 years. My family is not alone.
Researcher Lisa Allen wrote, “The history of America can be seen in the history of quilts: in the rich heritage left to us by those thrifty, self-sufficient women who helped homestead the land, in the families whose history is sewn into quilts one patch at a time, and in the legacy of the art of quilting, passed on to children and grandchildren so they may carry it forward to the future.”
Whether adorning beds, draping the backs of couches, or safely stored in cedar chests, our family quilts are intimately connected to our everyday lives. In many ways, we are in these quilts, which bind our memories, our truths, our hopes, our values, and our creative spirits. Quilting is a sisterhood: one I have been grateful to join.
My family’s oldest surviving quilt was passed down from my great-great-grandmother, Estelle, who was born in Mount Morris, Michigan, in 1868. Estelle was the second of eight children, and her father fought for the Union in the Civil War. Like many of the hardworking women in my family, Estelle was a farm girl to the core. She and her husband attempted to move to Chicago in the early 1900s to make “big money,” something we learned in audio recordings made by my grandfather, Dean Joe, before he died. They only lasted a few years there, returning by train with livestock purchased from the Chicago stockyard. Estelle and her four children walked the animals the final fifteen miles back to the farm, where the children weeded sugar beets and the girls helped cook for hired hands.
After Estelle passed away, her quilt was found in the cedar chest at the foot of her daughter’s bed. A classic two-color cotton quilt, it was most likely constructed when general stores, which sold a little bit of everything, began offering new, cheap fabrics manufactured in New England textile mills. Following the English proverb and work ethic, “A stitch in time saves nine,” Estelle evidently took pride in her work. She quilted ten stitches to an inch and, to this day, her quilt bares no holes.
The Delectable Mountains quilt pattern Estelle chose derives its name from the book The Pilgrim’s Progress, a Christian allegory that was, next to the Bible, the world’s most widely read text for about 200 years. My grandmother remembers the book as assigned school reading since it was one of the few books kept in most American homes. With its wondrous descriptions of the Celestial City and the Promised Land, as viewed from the Delectable Mountains, many early pioneers adopted this book to reinforce their faith during difficult times.
The Star of Bethlehem also takes pride of place in Estelle’s quilt, directly center. This medallion served as a metaphor for early homesteaders, who made journeys to the edge of the “New World” under the guidance of stars.
Estelle’s oldest daughter, Pearl, was born in 1896 and grew up on her family’s forty-acre farm in Quanicassee, nestled in the thumb of Michigan. Pearl’s father, Leroy, cleared the land himself—the “God-forsaken sandy soil” as Dean Joe called it—blowing out stumps and building a house. The family worked hard farming this plot, and, unfortunately for Pearl, being the oldest required her to take on the brunt of the labor. My grandma remembers Pearl saying that her younger siblings, especially Hazel and Ann, “were always in the outhouse, managing to get out of work.” Pearl’s work ethic stayed with her throughout her life, and she was apparently strong as an ox.
Joanie also remembers a story of Pearl, who taught in a one-room schoolhouse. Ann was one of her students. One day, the school caught fire, and the sisters managed to save the teacher’s desk, full of books, by lugging it outside. Later, it took four men to carry it back inside—after emptying it!
The subzero temperatures and relentless lake-effect snow of the Great Lakes region forged a resilient and adaptable population able to survive the hardships of long, harsh winters. Pearl and her family relied on a craft industry, one that emphasized the reuse of materials and ingenuity, to sustain their daily lives. The quintessential Michigander, Pearl grew food, baked bread, canned jams and pickles, and pulled taffy. She also tatted lace, etched glass, caned chairs, and quilted. My mom said, “She knew how to make lampshades, for Pete’s sake.”
By the time Pearl was in her thirties, ninety-eight percent of farm families owned a sewing machine. This invention, along with an even wider range of cheap fabrics, revolutionized domestic work and the piecing of quilt tops. Sewers could create intricate designs with efficiency, leading to a flowering of creativity and variation. Families could also now afford to have seam allowances, wasting a little fabric along the way and having some left over.
Sometime in the late 1960s, after decades of accumulating fabric, Pearl gifted her three granddaughters quilts for Christmas, in Grandmother’s Flower Garden, Grandmother’s Fan, and Dresden Plate patterns. My mom and her sisters were teenagers then, and, true to form, they failed to appreciate the work involved. Times had changed. During their suburban childhood, the Hadcock sisters experienced the first great mass production of home goods. Industry was booming; there was no need to learn the crafts of your forebears when the department store was a short drive away. Suddenly, quilts were old-fashioned, and the tradition fell out of favor.
My grandmother attempted to pass on the respect she felt for the work, telling her girls, “It might not mean much to you now, but it will.”
My grandma, Audrey, nicknamed Jinx, will be the first to tell you she is not a quilter. She was born in 1926 in Birmingham, Michigan, where her family was developing 1,000 acres of farmland into a community called Lathrup Village, a city that still exists today in the suburbs of Detroit. In the 1930s, Lathrup Townsite boasted relatively few houses but did offer a school, town hall, playground, and free bus service. As a young man, Audrey’s father, Earl, helped plot and grade the curvilinear streets of Lathrup Village using a horse and dump scraper. He eventually became manager of the family properties and “always worried about the weather and locust,” my mom says.
Audrey and her family ran a sixty-five-acre orchard and a cider mill. She spent her days picking crabapples or making hideaways in the trees, stashed with books wrapped in oilcloth. Occasionally, her father would throw a beet into the press, making the cider a prettier color. As the oldest, Audrey aided her father during summer lightning storms, looking for fires that might have broken out on the farm-share properties. A natural leader and public speaker, Audrey took on the responsibility of teaching the younger grades while attending a one-room school in Farmington. She eventually became president of her high school class and editor of the school paper.
Audrey started piecing her Dresden Plate quilt when she was twelve years old, a year before World War II broke out. She chose to leave it behind. The quilt remained in pieces for forty-five years until her daughter, my aunt Joanie, discovered them in a lone box in the attic.
The war cast a long shadow on everyday life and on Audrey’s classmates. From their ration books, Audrey’s family would trade sugar stamps for coffee stamps with a lady across the street who did a lot of baking. My grandma remembers a pair of green shoes made of fabric-covered cardboard that she couldn’t wear in the rain or snow because they would fall apart. The demands of war and the need for survival caused family crafts to be neglected, as women were called upon for the war effort. They were educated, they were active, and they were resilient.
On her first day at Michigan State University, Audrey met Dean, a GI who returned home in 1946 after being stationed in Odawara, Japan. During her senior year, Dean gave her his “sweetheart pin” and they would marry several years later. While Audrey and many women of this era became homemakers, they also became lifelong volunteers and community leaders due to their wartime experiences and duty to “pitch in.” Their children would go on to lead the Second Wave Feminism movement of the 1960s and ’70s.
Ann, Joan, and Susie spent their childhoods in Battle Creek, Michigan, called “Cereal City” due to the many cereal plants based there. Their father, Dean, was an engineer for Post. Though their childhood was rather idyllic, ’60s America was also chaotic, divided, and, as my mom says, “f***ing loud,” with race riots, the moon landing, the assassination of JFK, and the Vietnam War. It was an incredibly scary time; young men in the neighborhood were given draft numbers, with many sent, senselessly and ill-equipped, into guerrilla warfare.
The cultural landscape of the 1970s was a direct reaction to this explosive decade, prompting nostalgia for the homespun and “simpler” times. The back-to-the-land movement inspired many young people to turn to handiwork to find healing, solace, and comfort. They began practicing the traditional crafts of their grandparents but added their own creative touches. From knitting Icelandic sweaters to embroidering clothes, woodworking, and weaving, “If you weren’t hanging out with friends, you put a record on and did something like this,” my mom says.
In the summer of 1986, my parents Mark and Susie tied the knot. As a wedding gift, Joanie spent months working on a beautiful Crazy quilt. Sewn into the bottom right corner are pieces of fabric and lace from Estelle, Pearl, Audrey, and Ann’s wedding dresses. As the decades have passed, this wedding quilt has come to represent more than the love between sisters but the strong bonds of our tight-knit family. A year and a half after my parents’ wedding, Joanie married my dad’s brother, Alan. The Hadcock sisters had met their match in the Ridgeway brothers.
My parents went on to have three children: Katie, me, and my twin brother, Tommy. Meanwhile, Joanie and Alan also have three children: my cousins David, Joey, and Charlotte. Our family dynamic set the cousins up perfectly to be a second set of siblings for one another. Two weeks out of every summer were spent at our summer house, the Cottage in Fremont, Michigan, giggling every second and sleeping on the porch, usually bundled up in the worn quilts of our ancestors.
In the foothills of Salt Lake City, on a quiet and soft gray April morning, my mom pulls a special box from her suitcase. My parents arrived days before Katie’s baby shower and have spent the week assembling a crib and a stroller, hanging pictures, and preparing my sister’s house for friends. Thomas, my sister’s husband, brews a fresh pot of coffee with his stovetop French press. They sit together in a pile on the couch with their beloved black labradoodle.
“What is this?” my sister asks, as she gently pulls blush pink tissue paper from the box.
My mother winks. “Oh, you know, just a little something from the family.”
As Katie reaches Annabelle’s 100 Wishes quilt, her eyes grow. Thomas helps her, pulling out the soft cotton to read the embroidered blessings, as my mom gleefully explains the process of making the quilt and the meaning behind the words. (Katie is very impressed I managed to embroider two, neat rows, by the way.) I watch from the corner as my sister crosses the room to our mom. The two most important women in my life hug.
“I love you,” Katie says quietly.
“I love you too, little one,” my mom answers, her eyes closed.
Katie scurries off to put Annabelle’s quilt in her crib.
Long after we are gone, Annabelle’s quilt will still be. She can bunch it in her hands and run her fingers over the mismatched knots and stitching, remembering us. For the long line of women in my family, quilt making has allowed us to have the time together and the space to share our connection, our knowledge, and our experiences. Quilts are a piece of our souls, something beautiful we can create and leave on this earth. They are a part of our most vulnerable and intimate moments, when we need softness and safety to allow our dreams to take over. They are our mothers, up at night and brushing our cheek, saying, “I’m here, now go to sleep. You are loved. We are forever.”
I would like to dedicate this article to my mother, Susan Ridgeway, with a sincere thank you to Joan Ridgeway, who has spent years researching, documenting, and preserving our family heritage.
Samantha Windley is a writing intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a magna cum laude graduate of George Mason University with a BA in anthropology. She hopes to continue to write creatively and help foster human connection through her stories surrounding art, archaeology, history, and culture.