A Lasting Signature: Restoring a Vintage Quilt

18 May 2022

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Although my quilt practice started over twenty years ago, I’ve not once entertained the thought of quilt restoration. Friends, family, and sometimes people I don’t even know have asked me to help with many sewing tasks, including (but not limited to) hemming jeans, appliquéing flower patches over stains on a designer skirt, replacing broken zippers on swim trunks, darning socks, and patching holes on knees worn thin. However, it wasn’t until this year that a request came to completely restore a very special quilt.

I live on an island close to Vancouver, BC. As with most small communities, folks here rely on Facebook to connect with fellow islanders able to lend their skills to particular tasks or problem solving. When a resident asked for help to renew a family heirloom, it didn’t take long for the grapevine to suggest that I might be the quilter for the job. I hadn’t been feeling particularly creative over the past two years, and what energy I did have for quilting was given entirely to teaching and lecturing to quilters around the world on Zoom. Perhaps this project would be the spark I needed to ignite my passion again.

About a week after the call went out, I made my way to the other side of the island to meet a man about a quilt. I’d already asked about the size, age, and condition of the quilt, but before I made any decisions about the project it was important that I first take a look to make sure that (1) the quilt was worth saving, and (2) I possessed the skills to do the job.

My first surprise was that it wasn’t actually a quilt; instead, what he pulled from a large plastic bag was just a quilt top made in the “brick road” pattern using five solid colours: yellow, mint, lilac, pink, and periwinkle blue. Each brick, or block of the quilt, featured a person and place name embroidered in black floss. Over the course of an hour, this lovely gentleman shared the story of how the quilt came to his mother sixty-five years ago and his desire to have it fully restored for her as a surprise for an upcoming milestone birthday.

image description: a portion of the wrong side of a pieced quilt top; each square has a signature embroidered on it in black thread

The wrong side of the quilt top, prior to restoration.

Signature quilts were popularized by the Red Cross during WWI as part of the relief effort. After the Great Depression, various groups made these quilts to raise funds for community needs. Local folks would purchase a block, their name would be embroidered by members of the sponsoring group, and every name had a chance to win the finished quilt. In 1957, in a small northwestern Alberta hamlet, the La Glace Ladies Club ran a fundraiser by selling signature blocks for such a quilt. At the age of twenty, my client’s mother was the lucky winner, her father having purchased a block in her name. Along the rows of the quilt, the names of entire families are stitched side by side, however mothers are identified only by the Mrs. in front of their husband’s name as was social protocol back then. Ticket purchasers came from La Glace, but other nearby communities such as Meeting Creek, Dawson Creek, Buffalo Lake, Blueberry, Valhalla Centre, Rycroft, Sexsmith, and Grande Prairie are also represented.

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When this young woman left the family farm to start a life in Edmonton, she took her beloved quilt along. It was a cherished possession that was well used and cared for. My client recalled a special childhood tactile memory, tracing the embroidered names on the quilt as he fell asleep during naptime on his parents’ bed. Eventually, after years of use, the batting inside the quilt became detached from the quilting and many of the embroidered names began to disintegrate. His mother decided to preserve the quilt by painstakingly removing the hand-quilted stitches, folding up the top and storing it along with a written list of the names that were wearing away.

Now it was my turn to gently run fingers over the embroidered names, taking stock of the multitude of tiny holes in the top four rows of the quilt and wondering how I might tackle this very worthwhile restoration. We spoke about his expectations (to have a usable quilt again) and deadline (his mother’s birthday), my time estimates (30-40 hours), and finishing options (longarm or domestic quilting, as there wasn’t enough time for hand-quilting). We agreed upon a plan, and I excitedly returned home with this treasured quilt top and what felt like very meaningful work to complete over the next three months.

The first order of business was to decide a plan of action: what needed to happen and in what order. I spent some time with the 68-inch by 82-inch (173 by 208 cm) quilt top spread out over my dining table, examining each row, and taking stock of the damage. Overall, the cotton fabric was in good condition where it was still intact. It was clean, not brittle, and holding fast at the seams. I soon determined that the topmost row could not be saved; each block was threadbare and tattered and most of the embroidery was missing. A bed quilt suffers the most stress along the top edge where it is constantly exposed to oils and tension from hands pulling the quilt up. I decided to completely replace the thirteen signature blocks of the top row. The next three rows showed signs of wear with some missing embroidery and multiple tiny holes, but I felt that the fabric had enough integrity to save this area of the quilt with the proper support and some patches.

image description: an extreme close up of an embroidered quilt square; a hole is in the process of being mending, with fine thread

Mending the fabric.

Referencing manufacturer’s colour cards, I ordered colour-matched solid fabrics to replace the top row and patch some of the larger holes elsewhere in the quilt. I also ordered five yards of solid yellow for backing and binding and a lightweight 80/20 cotton blend batting. Only the periwinkle and lilac fabrics arrived much brighter than the vintage fabric in the quilt, so I toned those two down with a dilute bleach solution, which worked perfectly.

Removing the top row took time and patience as many of the seams in the quilt were sewn twice over, both times with very tiny stitches that even my smallest seam ripper could not penetrate. I am very sure the quilt was pieced on a Singer Featherweight as the stitches were beautifully formed, secure, and straight, just like the stitches my 1954 machine still produces. Once removed, I placed each of the thirteen signature blocks on my small light table under pieces of the new fabric and traced the original handwriting using tiny dots of a micron pen. From experience, I knew that my embroidery stitches would cover the dots completely and the permanent pen would not run or disappear before I completed the stitching. I then studied the wrong side of the blocks to figure out what form of stem stitch the original maker had used. I believe that each of the 337 names was written out by one person, but that at least two different stitchers had worked on the blocks. After some practice stitching, I felt ready to emulate the original embroidery and did so with stem-stitch, using black, 12-weight 2-ply cotton thread. Each block took about an hour for me to embroider with tiny stitches.

image description: a portion of a quilt top, on a lightbox; a piece of fabric sits on top, beside which there is a marker pen and a handwritten list of names; one of the names on the lower fabric has been partially traced onto the upper fabric

Tracing the names, with the owner’s own list as reference.

image description: a piece of yellow fabric embroidered with a name and place name; creases in the fabric indicate that it has been recently removed from an embroidery hoop

Tiny stitches, for the signatures.

To support the weakened fabrics of the next three rows and help to secure the remaining embroidery stitches from further unraveling, I fused a layer of Sewer’s Dream, a lightweight, non-woven interfacing, to the wrong side of those rows. Then, I pieced the new blocks together and attached the replacement top row to the reinforced section at the top of the quilt. At this point, I hand-appliqued a few colour-coordinated patches over the largest holes in the quilt. About ninety minutes were devoted to pressing the quilt top from the back, trying to coax the long horizontal seams to one side after years of being secured partly up and partly down along each seam. I then basted the prepared yellow backing, batting, and quilt top together with many safety pins. After years of use, the quilt top was a bit distorted, and each brick block was a bit “bagged out” and not really square anymore. It was important to secure the layers well before quilting by machine to avoid puckers in the quilt top. I re-established the same quilting pattern done by hand in 1957, forming X’s through each block, using a 50-weight cotton thread in pale yellow. For even more support, I also stitched-in-the-ditch each long horizontal seam. When trimming the quilt, I chose to use scissors to maintain the shape of the slightly skewed quilt rather than using rulers to render it perfectly square. Finally, I bound the quilt with a traditional double-fold binding, machine-stitched to the front and hand-tacked to the back.

image description: close up of a few squares of a pieced quilt, each square embroidered with a name and place name; some mending is evident

Darned squares.

image description: a portion of a pieced quilt; each square has a signature embroidered on it in black thread
Bound, with Krista’s label on the back.

I worked for a few more sessions, repairing the tiny holes throughout the quilt with small satin stitches in 12-weight cotton thread to match each fabric colour. I felt the vintage fabric could best support these stitches if I sewed them into and through the batting layer. With my client’s permission, I added a brief label to the back, chronicling the quilt’s origin, owner, and date of the restoration. It was my absolute pleasure to spend upwards of thirty-five hours renewing this special piece as a gift back to its original owner, from her loving son. I’m also happy to report that the focus, care, and satisfaction with this work has left me feeling inspired and ready to create again. It gives me hope that someone may cherish a quilt that I’ve made for more than sixty-five years.

image description: a large pieced quilt in mutiple pastel colours; each square is embroidered with a name and palce name, in black thread

The completed restoration. Click to enlarge. 

All images courtesy Krista Hennebury

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The articles, tutorials and patterns we publish about Canadian fibre and textile arts, crafts and industry are made possible by our members.

Copyright © Krista Hennebury except as indicated.

About Krista Hennebury

Krista Hennebury is a former geoscientist now playing with fabric on an island off the coast of Vancouver, BC. She started quilting in 2000, blogging about her makes under the name Poppyprint in 2009 and published a compilation book of retreat-inspired sewing and quilting projects, Make It, Take It in 2015. A frequent contributor to print magazines, keen retreat organizer and enthusiastic guild member, Krista is also known as a patient and encouraging teacher of both precision and improvisational patchwork techniques, having done so from coast to coast to coast in Canada and five other countries. Krista's modern quilts have won awards at both QuiltCon and QuiltCanada. She's taught and lectured at over 80 events on Zoom in the past two pandemic years and is looking forward to getting back to her people in person very soon.

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