I’d like to share with you my process of preparing a vintage quilt top for finishing. Each top is different and will require different things of course, but this one is my latest finish and it has an interesting story and was extra challenging.
Choosing the vintage quilt top
I loved the colors in this top the minute I saw it. And one of my favorite flowers is the tulip. Those things drew me to choose it. I did notice some fullness in the blocks, but since I have experience with quilting hand pieced vintage tops, I had confidence I could tame it. Oh boy, was I wrong!
The Truth about vintage quilt tops
There is usually a reason these tops never get quilted. Any quilter will tell you that they have quilt tops waiting to be quilted. In modern times, it’s usually a matter of not enough hours in the day to get all our projects completed. The vintage tops that end up in estate sales or on auction sites usually have some issues that would have made quilting them difficult. Remember, most were hand quilted back in the day. This tulip quilt had some major issues. But I’m so glad I chose this one. I loved working with it and learned a few things along the way.
Preserve as much of the original as you can
I try to preserve these vintage tops as best I can. They are a piece of history. I think about the hours of work that went into the hand piecing. Just look at those pretty, even, hand stitches!
A few tucks or a stain here or there is OK, just part of the uniqueness of the piece. This quilt top was uber unique! It presented a challenge that was insurmountable without some major alterations.
After spending some time trimming frayed threads from the back, I took it to my ironing board to see how I could possibly get the top to lie a little flatter. Several hours later I came to the realization that it just was not going to happen. I had to make the difficult decision to take the quilt apart and separate the blocks.
A special group collaboration
Most of the blocks had a name written on the back in pencil (3 blocks had no name). These were not signatures, since they were all in the same handwriting. But I imagine they are a record of the maker of the block. This quilt was a collaborative group effort! Making it even more special and deserving of preservation.
Who were these ladies?
The whole time I worked on this quilt I thought about what sort of group this might have been. Was it a quilting bee? A group who gathered around a quilting frame whenever a quilt needed quilting? Were they neighbors, friends, a church group, members of a guild? It led me to think about the groups I have had the privilege of being a part of. And the wonderful friendships I have made through quilting. I hoped these women enjoyed the same blessing I have had.
I also thought about why they might have decided to make a quilt together. Was it to comfort a sick friend? Celebrate a milestone? Donate to a worthy cause to raise money? I wondered if, back then, did they hold block exchanges? Was there many more of these quilts, one for each of the contributors? Did any of them get quilted?
I wish I knew more about these ladies.
I thought maybe they were a group with varying ages since some were just first names (younger), and some were full names, and some were surnames, Mrs. so-and-so, (older and more respected?) It was actually quite fun thinking about the possibilities. And now that I have finished the quilt, I think I am a member of the group too.
Back to work
But back to the job of preparing this top. I had to un-sew the blocks on this vintage quilt top to see if I could somehow stitch them together in a way that would let them lie flat.
My original idea was to add sashing to compensate for blocks that were not all the same size. That’s quite often a common problem with group quilts. But when I got them apart, it became apparent what the problem actually was.
The blocks were not square, or rectangular. They were an unusual shape with sort of pointy wings in each corner.
Someone, (I wonder who?), painstakingly sewed these blocks together by hand. That was certainly a labor of love.
You can see the middles of each side are straight but then they bow outward to the pulled-out corners. I thought about adding melon shapes between the blocks but after measuring and discovering no two blocks measured the same, I gave up on that idea.
I trimmed the blocks to as square as possible without losing any of the tulip.
Because they were all different sizes I decided to add sashing to each block, to make them all the same size. I hunted for a muslin that matched the vintage muslin background.This process required a lot of accurate measuring and math.
I was hoping that the quilting would eventually hide the seams required to add the sashings, and that the tulips would simply be floating on the background.
Once the blocks were all brought to a uniform size, I sewed them back together into a quilt top. Here they are laid out ready to be sewn. I feel I preserved the look of the vintage quilt top and didn’t really alter it too much.
Sadly, I did have to eliminate four of the blocks. The piecing on those would not allow me to press them anywhere close to flat. Let me publicly apologize to those ladies whose blocks didn’t make it back into the quilt. I’m so sorry, I know you did your best.
One of those blocks did get used on the back for the label. I might just hand stitch the other three to the back of the quilt as well. Just so the group can stay together.
Now that I had a nice flat quilt top, I could start thinking about the quilting. Come back next week and I’ll share about creating the designs and quilting with my HQ Infinity.
This quilt will be featured in the May/June issue of Love of Quilting magazine.
by Mary Beth Krapil