Grandmother Rosa’s handiwork was a common sight around the house, growing up, and you would often find someone snuggled up under a quilt or sleeping on a handmade pillowcase. Those textiles were the physical manifestation of a woman I never knew and a way of life I couldn’t imagine.
Dad would laugh whenever a patchwork quilt hung in a gallery, with a price tag in the thousands. “To think,” he would say, “we were so poor, Mama made those out of necessity, and we would pile under three or four to make it through the bitter, winter nights.”
Before she died, Grandmother made quilts for each grandchild, and mine is proudly displayed in our home, alongside another from Brad’s aunt.
Quilts have a story to tell, and their narrative still captivates me, forty years later. Whether made by that widowed mother of eight trying to keep her children warm or a young bride starting a new life, I imagine each piece of cloth was sewn by a woman dreaming of — and working for — better days.
That’s why I was ecstatic to find a hand-sewn quilt from the 1940s, in excellent condition, while antiquing with Brad’s mom during the Christmas holidays. It called to me the moment I saw it and was impossible to pass up.
As soon as we returned home, I curled up on my favorite chair and began studying each block. But as beautifully as the front was constructed, it was the backing that caught me by surprise.
A cursory glance around the edges showed nothing but plain, beige fabric. But once the quilt had been spread out, the large “Sargent Developing Mash” stamp was visible in the center.
Turns out, Sargent Feeds was a Des Moines-based company, whose heyday was in the 1940s. Not only does this confirm the quilt’s date, but it offers a tiny glimpse of the woman who created it — maybe the matriarch of a Midwestern farming family, who had chickens and children to feed and keep warm. I’ll bet she wasted nothing in accomplishing both tasks, as she converted empty sacks into useful blankets.
Who knows how that quilt ended up in Fairhope, Ala., but I’m grateful for the reminder that a creative eye and a skillful hand can elevate something unwanted and disposable into functional art that stands the test of time.