One of the most overlooked treasures one can possess in Appalachia has for many generations been a handmade quilt. Considered as precious heirlooms, quilts are often handed down from one family generation to another. For me, to possess a handmade quilt given to a person out of love or friendship is simply the finest gift one could ever receive.
For well over 200 military veterans residing in the Veterans’ Home at Barboursville, West Virginia, a group of special ladies from the Calvary Baptist Church of Chapmanville has made the recent Veteran’s Day holiday even more valued by supplying each veteran with a homemade quilt.
Pastor John Freeman’s “Ladies of Calvary Quilt Ministry” meets each Wednesday to diligently work on quilts with some of the women, including his wife, Pam, also working on them at their homes. It is a slow and meticulous process with each person choosing their own quilt design.
Growing up as a coal camp child, I can remember my mother and most other women that I knew “quilting.” Between raising usually a house full of children, as well as cooking, cleaning, gardening, preserving food, and doing just about everything else a household mother of today can only imagine — including wringing a chicken’s neck, scalding it to get the feathers off of it, as well as plucking the feathers later, before cooking the family bird — it seems amazing that women back then could ever complete the making of a quilt. Indeed, it did often take a busy woman a year or so to complete just one quilt.
What I have noticed about those patient hands that leisurely produced the finalized beauty that would keep one warm during cold and snowy nights is the tranquility that seemed to possess the “quilter” during her patchwork. Slowly, over time, a youngster more inclined to the outdoor life — as he or she sped through their house and out the door to play baseball or ride bicycles in good weather, or to trek in wintertime to the nearest hillside sleigh-riding expedition — a daily quick glance on the run allowed a kid to each day see a small patchwork of brilliance grow into an art form of love and warmth until the finished product was proudly displayed.
Quilt making is considered by many women today as mostly a hobby, but years ago it actually was somewhat of a necessity. In early Appalachia, as was also the case in Colonial times, fabric was not easily obtainable. Therefore, a worn out piece of cloth material was never discarded but often was used as patchwork or for the filing of the inside of a quilt, which likely was not elaborate, but helped in keeping a family warm. Quilts also were considered functional items that could be used to cover windows and doors to help keep cold air from entering during winter.
A sewing machine was almost a necessity in every home during my childhood. However, long before my arrival on this planet we call Earth, women were kept busy spinning, weaving and hand-sewing the clothes for their families to wear. Quilts, which simply remind me of a sandwich because of the outside layers on each side with a cloth filing in the middle, were historically essential in keeping a family warm.
Although most people think of quilts as being used in the wintertime, there also were made what are called “summer quilts”. That type quilt has all of the traditional stitching as the winter quilt, but without a middle filling, it serves well as simply a bed cover.
Quilts have even played a historical role in times of war. For instance, during World War II, quilting was used to raise money to support the American Red Cross. There was such a thing made as a “signature quilt” that was especially popular because it was embroidered with the names of businesses, people and companies, as well community citizens who paid a small fee to have their names put into the quilts. The finished quilts were raffled off with all proceeds going to the Red Cross.
In 1917 when America entered World War I, it is said that quilt making was encouraged by the U.S. government as the tradition became more important than ever. The American motto at that juncture in time was “Save the Blankets for our Boys over There.”
There was even a period when people not only got together to help in the building of a neighbor’s barn, but ladies would also come together for what was referred to as a “quilting bee.” In that rural social event, quilts could be finished in just one day instead of weeks and months, thus, quickly allowing mountaineering families to help keep warm.
A great friend of mine, Mary (Akers) Preece, a resident of Whitman Creek, has for years continued what used to be a long standing tradition of hand making a quilt for all of her children. The custom was for mothers to make quilts for each of their children to give them when they left home to begin their own adult lives. Today, there are those poor souls who cannot even thread a needle.
I never realized it at the time, but when I left home for Marshall University in August of 1971, my mother gave me a handmade quilt she had produced at some point in her lifetime, probably while I was busy fielding ground balls or shooting hoops on a homemade backboard near the company store. That patch-worked quilt lasted most of my life, but, like my mother, it finally gave in to time and is now but a wonderful memory.
Nowadays, it’s easy to walk into a Target or Wal-Mart location and purchase a quilt that even there still costs a pretty penny. Nevertheless, as nice as the blankets at those stores may appear, they likely were mass produced in China or some other country where people are exploited in supplying goods for American consumers.
There are many longstanding American traditions of true art work that are slowly disappearing as technology continues to smother our younger generation.
Fortunately, there are still those people who continue the wonderful tradition of quilt making. The ladies of Calvary Baptist Church have taken the artwork leaps and bounds beyond the norm by supplying quilts for not only military veterans but also by producing “lap quilts” for Hospice of Chapmanville, a function the women unceremoniously have been doing since 2004.
Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, “Thank a veteran.”
Well, at least now, some veterans, as well as the rest of us, can also acknowledge the “veteran” work of the “Ladies of Calvary Quilt Ministry.”
May their efforts remain forever “stitched” in time.