Growing up, I remember watching television shows like “Little House on the Prairie” and other westerns. They all showed how hard the pioneers worked to slowly cross the country, battling Indian raids, accidents and illnesses in their struggle to arrive at the plot of land they dreamt about.
Life was hard and a woman’s work was never done. Among all her chores, she also had to ensure her family kept warm during the cold winters. Making quilts was a necessity. Her quilts were made from any fabric she might have brought with her from her former home, and any fabric left over from clothing she made.
As more settlers arrived, small communities appeared. Women who were isolated from society now had the opportunity to gather together. House raisings, barn raisings and quilting bees provided opportunities for families to help one another and socialize.
One custom required prospective brides to store 11 quilts in their hope chests before they married. The 12th quilt was called the “bride’s quilt” and displayed the best fabric, design and workmanship. A young lady had to spend many hours making sure she had the required quilts. Girls married young, and learned to quilt started as soon as they could hold a needle. The last quilt was usually made after she was engaged.
To help quilt all these tops, women would gather for a quilting bee. Weaving several quilts during a day was normal for them. Quilting bee participants shared community gossip and traded bits of fabric so all their quilts did not look the same. It was a pure luxury when there was money to buy fabric by the yard.
So how did the pioneer woman get any piecing done after the sun set? She certainly didn’t have any time during daylight hours to sit and sew. During the day, she was busy tending to the house, the children, the garden, washing, cooking, etc. She even had to make her own soap. Imagine trying to clean a house with no electricity, no running water, and if you were lucky, a stove instead of a fireplace to heat water and cook.
Many years ago, during one of the quilt guild’s programs, we were asked to bring candles and oil lamps to our meeting. As we assembled for our evening’s program, we were told to place all our lit candles and lamps around the meeting room. When they were all set out the lights were turned out.
At first, the members of the guild were plunged into darkness. As our eyes became accustomed, we were amazed at just how little light a candle gave off.
The oil lamps weren’t much better. In fact, the longer they burned, the smellier it got in our room. We were given small pieces of fabric, a needle and thread, and told to sew the two small pieces of fabric together using a quarter-inch seam allowance. We found ourselves trying to crowd around the oil lamps because they gave off better light.
We all agreed it was almost impossible to work in that light. That evening, our appreciation grew for the quilts the pioneer women made.