Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Great Grandma Gift: Hand Quilts

Way back in 1997, there was an awesome quilt exhibit at the Autry Museum in Los Angeles, curated by renowned quilt scholar Barbara Brackman. It was called "Patterns of Progress: Quilts in the Machine Age," and looked at quilts from before to long after sewing machines became commonplace in homes. A fabulous book accompanied the exhibit.

At the time, I'd been  quilting about four years, and was mostly self-taught. I was transfixed by many of the exhibit quilts. One that I couldn't tear myself away from was the red-and-white one here: .

(Momentary pause while you contemplate it.)  The quilt was made in Indiana or Kansas, by Amanda Elizabeth Garman for her daughter Bertha, born in 1878,  presumably from a tracing of Bertha's little hand.

On the red-and-white quilt, look how uneven those 'flying geese' triangles are.  Check out the upper left corner of the borders, where there's a fragment of a triangle. The improvisational quirkiness brings the quilt its charm and life, though it might peeve today's more traditional quilt judges.

Something else that annoyed 20th century quilters about this quilt is the machine quilting, according to Brackman. The 1878 quilt is machine quilted with straight lines. Some quilters looking at it 100 years later were disappointed that it wasn't hand quilted.

 (Ironic or confusing: machine quilting a hand quilt vs. hand quilting a hand quilt?)

To see the white quilting lines, click on the red-and-white quilt image. The lines are on a grid, putting an 8-line intersection at the center of each hand -  an emanating asterisk. It's waaaaaaay cool, like a palmistry diagram or Spiderman spraying web in all directions.

The quilt world's disapproving attitude toward machine quilting pre-1990 has completely transformed into an enthusiastic embrace by most. (The turning point, historians say, was Caryl Bryer Fallert's spectacular machine-quilted Corona II: The Solar Eclipse claiming top prize at the American Quilter's Society show in 1989.)

At the time of the Autry show, my mother's birthday was coming up. Amanda's quilt inspired me to make a blue-and-white hand quilt from my 3-year-old son's hand.  That's the quilt at the top of this post and below. As the pregnant mother of a toddler, I was way too impatient, busy and tired  to do all those hundreds of triangles, so I skipped the sashing, and the upper and lower borders became squares. For more movement, I had the geese on the left border fly north, and on the right, south.  The hands are raw edge applique (meaning I cut them out and stuck them on, without turning edges under).  I'm pretty sure I used fusible web behind the hands, and stitched a tiny zig-zag to catch the edges.  (I wonder if future museums will do exhibits about how quilts changed before and after the advent of fusible web. You think?)

The quilt was machine quilted, with echo quilting around the hands, then spirals in-between. Half spirals are at the edges. Here's a photo that shows the quilting:

I do wish I'd done the Spiderman  thing. Maybe it's not too late to stitch an asterisk into each one of those hands.

It's one of my pet theories that making things wonky is harder than making them precise... unless you're a beginner, which I was. On my quilt, the border spirals are bizarre, many geese points were cut off, and most mysterious of all of all, the  top horizontal border is 25 little checks across, while the bottom one is only, uh, 24.  How did I do THAT? (Thus the quilt measures 19 1/2" across on bottom, 20" across on top, and 21" high).  It took me years to learn how to make borders the same size. (Hint: Measure both borders, cut to the same size, and THEN attach them. The day I read that tip, my world shook.)

The finished quilt hung in my parents' stairwell  for 14 years. We hung it low, so the kids could reach it. Thus it has a big smudge where one of my babies tried to fit their hand into the outline, so it needs a good washing.

My baby boy is now in college. When we finally closed down my parents' house last year, I took it off the wall and brought it home with me. It is poignant in so many ways.

 The possibilities for hand quilts are infinite. You've probably seen some, and maybe even made one or more. They're particularly popular for children's quilts, because children grow!  Here are some interesting hand quilt ideas I found online:
  • Hands don't have to march in symmetrical rows. Toss them across the surface helter-skelter. Or set the blocks askew, like this 1980 African American quilt  in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  
  • Make them into tree leaves, like here and here.
  • Zentangle (advanced doodle) inside a hand, and translate that to freemotion quilting on fabric (Scroll down on this page)
  • Set them into intersecting rings, on a satin background, for a wedding chuppah (like quilter Ruth Harris' chuppah on one of my webpages, here. Third photo down.)  
  • Add names, on or below the hands. You embroider them, for an old-timey look
And much, much, much more. If you do an image search on Google for "hand print" quilts, you'll have more ideas than you know what to do with! If you've made a hand quilt, I'd love to see it!

PS I shared this on Nina-Marie Sayre's Off-the-Wall Fridays, with lots of wonderful art quilts:


  1. I had thought of doing handprints for a baby quilt using the hands of the future parents and the 4 grandparents. Never did get around to it and the baby is 9 years old now! Perhaps if and when my nephew has children, that will be the theme. Roz in Montreal

  2. Roz, it's not too late! 9 year old hands will still grow! You could make it a birthday gift! I vote you go for it! And thanks for the comment!

  3. Oh oh oh! How about starting to gather handprints and signatures from all your friends/acquaintances and make a block now and then with their name embroidered... a no-brainer easy take-a-long project.. if you don't put them together, you have the flexibility of joining them later as gifts... (Marriage, birthday, retirement... etc...).. Pillows, wall hangings, lap quilts.. you know.. all that stuff... Hmmm... I'm gonna do that!

  4. Exellent plan, LoLo! Hand prints solve all gift-giving problems! Thanks!

  5. Great little quilt. I did a hand quilt for one of my bosses when they thought she might have a recurrance of breast cancer. All our coworkers, her husband and daughter and 3 dogs and a lot of our customers who were friends of hers - some of them cancer survivors themselves. It was a meaningful quilt for her. As for machine quilted quilts, I was machine quilting some of my quilts back in the 80's. It always annoyed me that people had a problem with it. Back in the 1870's & 80's that treadle or hand crank machine was state of the art. Our however many times great grandmothers would love what we have available today.

    1. Paule-Marie, thanks for your thoughts. Hand quilts make wonderful healing quits. And one thing I forgot to mention in the essay - those 19th and early 20th century women were thrilled they could machine quilt, and wanted to show off the fact that they owned a machine, as much as possible, according to Brackman's book. It was only much later that quilters started looking down on machine-quilting.

  6. These quilts work on two levels - the recipient and family know specifically whose hands were used, and for the "outisde world" the design contains an element that they can easily relate to. Hands are so important!

    1. You are so right, Margaret! Hands are powerful! Thanks for stopping by.

  7. I made a simple quilt using feedsacks several years ago. For some crazy reason, I felt it needed to be hand quilted. The fact that I had only hand quilted one other very small thing previously did not deter me, though it probably should have. In the squares I traced my sons hand, about age 3 or 4, and quilted his hand in each square. It doesn't really show, which is probably a good thing, but I love that I have 64 copies of his little hand on that quilt.

  8. 64 copies of his little hand is too wonderful!!!!
    Very nice number! It has a square root!
    Thanks for sharing your story, Lynn.