Completing a century of quilting

Lap quilting Grandma's Garden

Lap quilting Grandma’s Garden

In December I began hand quilting a Grandma’s Garden quilt my grandmother began to assemble about a century ago. This month I finished the task. Throughout, I was literally wrapped in history as I held the quilt on my lap and took each stitch. 

The flowers that comprise this quilt spent nearly 90 years in my maternal grandmother Mary Elizabeth Haylock Jensen’s trunk. After my grandfather died of the Spanish flu in 1918, Grandma packed many mementos of her family and childhood into a large trunk that moved with her from place to place as she worked to provide for herself and her two daughters. She never remarried.

Eventually the trunk found a home on the farm I grew up on in Jackson County, Iowa. Grandma Jensen lived with us during the summers and with her other daughter (my aunt Joyce) during the school months. After my grandmother died, when my parents retired from the farm to live in Preston, Iowa, they brought the trunk with them, moving it lock, stock, and still unopened into the basement of their home in town. My mother—Ruby Belle Jensen Denter—probably knew what was in her mother’s trunk, but she never dealt with the contents until after my father died in 1999.

Then she opened the trunk and out came a treasure of old quilt pieces, enough to assemble a dozen quilts of different designs. The products of not only my grandmother’s work before she married in 1914, but also of her mother’s work. We have reason to believe that at least two of them-a crazy quilt so fragile pieces of taffeta and silk literally crumble to the touch and a pineapple quilt-were made by my great-grandmother Lydia Belle Luckey Haylock sometime between 1875 and 1910.

Grandma's Garden quilt detail

Grandma’s Garden quilt detail

At the time my mother retrieved the quilts from Grandma’s trunk, her eyesight was failing from macular degeneration. She wanted the quilts completed and she turned to me, though I have little quilting experience.  I turned to my sister in law Anita Gogerty, an accomplished quilter. Anita consented to put the quilt pieces together if I would do the quilting.

The projects required a varying degree of work. The Grandma’s Garden, with its hundreds of hexagons required more effort than any other. It was one I actually never imagined would be finished.  Anita took me totally by surprise when she brought it to me after Thanksgiving last year. 

Almost every night, I sat working on the quilt, thinking about the colors, marveling at the hand stitching, imagining my grandmother’s life. Every night I worked on the quit, my appreciation grew for the vintage fabrics, for what having such a treasure meant to our family and our history. I felt a tremendous responsibility to my grandmother, to my mother, and to the quilts. And I felt honored to contribute to the history of these quilts.

I am pleased that some of my ancestors’ quilt story is finally outside the trunk for others to enjoy.

Grandmas Garden Quilt Genealogy
Carol Ann Denter Bodensteiner (1948 – ) & Anita Gogerty
Ruby Belle Jensen Denter (1916-2008)
Mary Elizabeth Haylock Jensen (1891-1972)
Lydia Belle Luckey Haylock (1857-1916)

Nurturing Creativity – Six Steps to a Successful Retreat

Each morning I turn on my computer, open up the files, and write. By myself. For hours. Writing is a solo activity, at least much of the time. My story. My time at the keyboard. My effort day and night.

Photo courtesy of This Day Photography. Published in The Iowan Jan/Feb 2013

Photo courtesy of This Day Photography.
Published in The Iowan Jan/Feb 2013

Creativity is often an individual effort. One person with an idea they bring to fruition. But creativity is also nurtured in groups. I was reminded of that as I wrote an article on quilt retreats for this month’s issue of The Iowan

The women I interviewed for this article were effusive about the benefits of doing what they loved in groups. They enjoyed time with their friends who share the same interest, time to learn new techniques, time to focus without interruption on something they love. By the time I finished the interviews and wrote the article, it crossed my mind that I could have written the article without doing the interviews. Because what these quilters described was exactly what I get out of writing retreats.

Even though my writing buddy Mary Gottschalk and I meet every two weeks to discuss and critique writing projects, we still spend a week each summer in a retreat away from our homes. Over the years, we’ve established a retreat approach that works for us. Here are the steps:

  1. Agree on retreat goals. Everyone doesn’t have to be working on the same genre or be at the same place in the process but everyone should agree on the overall structure and goal.  In our case, the agreement is to actually write and critique. It’s not going to work so well if someone thinks sleeping in or shopping all day is a better use of her time.
  2. Take a walk. We start each morning with a walk. Exercise is good for the body and the brain. We might talk writing, we might not.
  3. Write all morning. After breakfast, we settle in at our computers. We might be in separate rooms. We might be at the same table. But we are both dedicated to writing. Upon occasion, if one of us reaches a particularly problematic point, we talk it through, but mostly we write.
  4. Have lunch.  We may talk about the morning writing. Or not. It’s as important to take a break as to focus on the task.
  5. Critique. After lunch, we trade copy, read and spend however much time we need to provide feedback on the morning efforts.
  6. Reward! In the evening, we reward ourselves for our dedicated effort over a glass of wine and a nice dinner.

The next day, we go at it again. Same approach. Every day for as many days as our retreat lasts. We’ve tried a variety of venues for retreats, from bed & breakfasts to meeting rooms, but the main requirement is that the space be physically comfortable for long hours at the computer. A coffee pot is mandatory; a refrigerator helpful.

As writers, we do a lot of work alone and we’ve scaled writing mountains together. 

How about you? Do you create in groups as well as alone? What works for you?

What colors do you see in history?

The colors of a century ago

I’ve begun hand quilting a quilt my grandmother began over 100 years ago. This quilt is a riot of colors and designs in floral shapes and it has me thinking about how I think about color. And how those thoughts may be shaping my writing.

My novel in progress is set pre-World War I. For inspiration, I’ve looked at photos from that time. Photos of people and buildings and cars and landscapes. Of course, these photos are all in black and white. I’ve toured exhibits of period clothing from that time. The vast majority of these clothes are blue, black, gray and the cream of muslin.

As I look at the colors in this quilt created during that very same era, I realize I’ve made assumptions about what fabrics people had available to them. That their clothing was more drab or uninteresting or plain. 

I’m not the only one to jump to conclusions about color. Take a look at the Greek and Roman statues. We see them as white marble. But, there are folks who make a convincing case that when these statues were new, the sculptors painted them in vivid colors. We’ve come to expect to see white; adding color is jarring.

Same thing with dinosaurs. Since all we’ve had are the bones, no one knew what color these ancient creatures really were. But research suggests they were anything but the drab reptile gray-green-brown we see in movies and museums, particularly those dinosaurs with feathers.

There may have been practical reasons for most people to stick with navy, black, brown, gray and cream for their clothes 100 years ago. Keeping them clean, for instance. Or having them appear to be clean when you can’t throw everything in a washing machine every few days. The basic colors could find more uses across gender and age and time, so economics may have come into play. But that doesn’t mean their color palette didn’t include all the colors of the rainbow.

I don’t know exactly what all the colors in this quilt will mean to how I write my novel. Perhaps nothing at all. But with my grandmother’s quilt added to the artifacts from which I draw inspiration, I trust I’ll think of the time as more brilliant.

How do you think about color when you think about history?  Authors, have you been caught thinking in black and white? Readers, what do you expect from authors when they show you another time?