Thursday, March 31, 2011

Eliza's Quilt

My own odyssey into family history and genealogy began when, as a small child, I first heard my mother speak of her grandmother - Eliza Judd. The very sound of her name filled me with wondrous images of a pioneer ancestor, strong and soft, hearty and gentle. These early images have been born out in all the research I have found on her. Throughout my childhood and teenage years I was always eager to eavesdrop when my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles were gathered, hoping to catch a tidbit of the story of Eliza.

Three women: my grandmother Alice Bridgeman Dowling, my great-aunt Catherine Bridgeman Keife, and my beloved mother Eileen Dowling Foote were most precious to me in keeping my hopes up. Each had known Eliza and each gave to me not only of their memories but also a personal heirloom which had once belonged to Eliza. From my grandmother I received Eliza Judd's Bible which contains recordings of marriages, births and deaths written in her own hand; a truly priceless and cherished gift. From my great-aunt I was given the wonderful and compelling book, "Philip Judd and his Descendants", which I later gave to her daughter and is now enriching her family.

And from my mother I was given the truly magnificent gift of a hand pieced quilt top made by Eliza in her golden years. This gift has kept them all close to me in a most personal way.

The quilt itself was not completed before Eliza's death, she had managed only to piece together the top – no batting, and no backing. By the time it became mine a few small areas of fabric had literally fallen apart and much of the stitching was disintegrating. When one receives a quilt made by an ancestor one is charged with the responsibility of preserving and maintaining this uniquely female art form. An antique quilt represents so many areas of a woman's life. The quilt of Eliza Judd is composed of nearly fifty different fabrics, and it takes only a short time to realize that these small pieces of material each hold a story of their own. Ginghams and calicoes, broadcloth, sturdy cottons and, joyfully, tiny squares of fine linen which were, perhaps, once a part of her very best Sunday blouse. Stripes and polka dots, florals and geometrics, checks and paisleys. Shades and hues of reds, and browns, blues, and grays, and even a faded floral chintz.

Careful restoration has been required. Working from the back where I could envision the delicate hand which produced the tiny stitches, I have allowed myself to fantasize as to the origins of the various fabrics. Was that brown and tan check from a work shirt worn by my great-grandfather, and did the blue, checked gingham once form an apron donned daily in her kitchen? This plain gray cotton, given life in her imaginative pairing with a bright red calico, was it a portion of a boys everyday school pants? Were the now faded roses on chintz once flowing curtains or slipcovers to adorn her parlor? And this tiny, delicate pink and white linen, can I dream that it was a perky little dress worn by a scrubbed and shining daughter, or a granddaughter, maybe even my mother!

These are the thoughts which filled the hours as I carefully and respectfully stitched away at the underside, the true heart of this lovely quilt. Each small section was in need of new seams. I have left Eliza's own stitches, far more delicate than mine, in place, and have tried to stitch carefully along side of them. The intent was not to in any way destroy her seams, rather to preserve and reinforce them. I have used a cotton wrapped, polyester thread with the hope that it will add a longer life span. Sadly, two sections contained fabric which was beyond saving. These I was forced to repair with new material, replacing only those pieces which were completely lost to time. I used a red and white polka-dot, piecing it in to conform to her original design. And it is that same red and white polka-dot which I chose for the backing of this quilt. For this is not a quilt of the "fancy" variety. Nowhere in its design is it suggested that this quilt was intended for more than a functional covering, one which would add warmth and color to an ordinary bed. There is no balancing of the fabrics and colors to form an overall large scale motif, instead each square represents its own lively selection of random fabrics. Only in the individual squares is there correspondence of colors and only through the collectiveness of the squares does a conformity of pattern exist. From this very unusual method emerges a visual landscape of immense variety fashioned into a square and triangle geometric whole.

No rush has guided me. I have spent years at the frame, sometimes setting it aside for months on end, and then returning to it when time and mood were needing the calm and soothing rhythm of needle and thread. During the times when I have set it aside I have kept it, no matter its unfinished state, in a place of prominence in my living room. And as the years have passed it has never failed to be the focal point, for me, of warmth and coziness in an ever changing home - with children being born, and more children being fostered and adopted, growing to young adulthood, and off on their own, all the while careful in their normal boisterous play never to spill, topple, or tear the treasured quilt. Life has changed in uncountable ways, there have been apartments and homes, sparse and opulent. But the quilt has blended with whatever surroundings, as appropriate alongside a Duncan Pfyfe table covered with lace and crystal as a little Windsor rocker with a silly but loved pillow shaped like a chicken.

Now I am middle aged and have entered a new phase in my life. I am alone with yet two more children to raise. Gone are the big houses and the comings and goings of so many people, adult and child. I have settled into a small little farm house, just myself, my girls, the dog and the cat. There is still much unpacking to be done, places to designate for the collections of nearly half a century. But the quilt is in the living room. It was among the first of the possessions to be unpacked and quickly situated in a place of honor, near to my favorite "settin" spot and handy for when I want to stitch. It is nearly completed. Perhaps another month of now and then nights before the television. The girls sense an excitement, at last it will be done. They cannot know that I am already feeling a loss. What will replace the comfort is has given me in joyful days, and sad and wretched nights? Shall I begin a new one, of my own design? Shall I return to the embroidery I loved so as a girl? Should I learn how to crochet, as my grandmother once did? And what will I do with the oh so special quilt I have shared in making with Eliza Judd? Where will I put it? On my bed? What if something were spilled or the cat decided to nap there fresh from a morning in the fields chasing after mice and birds and covered in newly tilled soil! Perhaps I could hang it on the wall as is the fashion nowadays. But what would Eliza think of that? Just an old quilt, not fancy, never heard of hanging one on the parlor wall. Still I must have it near me, so I believe I shall keep it folded and laid casually on my little love-seat, ready to curl up in while I enjoy a good book and a cup of tea. And they will be near also, these women who gave me life, my mother, my grandmother, my great-aunt, and my great-grandmother, Eliza Judd - always enveloping me with their love, sustaining my life through the folds of an old quilt.


“Eliza's Quilt” was actually written in 1992, nearly 20 years ago. I had just gone through an extremely difficult divorce and had moved into a small “Tenants House” on a farm in south central Wisconsin. It was remote, it was peaceful, it was surrounded by fields, forests, and wildlife. I was there to lick my wounds. This is a true story, written before the age of blogs or self-publishing. I saved it, and am now (with some slight amount of editing), finally, able to share it with kindred souls.

Kate Foote

Eliza Judd's Quilt


  1. What a wonderful, wonderful story! I so enjoyed reading it on this stormy morning here in Florida. It is a beautiful quilt and you wrote this story so well all those years ago. It is so neat that you kept it and shared it with us today!

  2. What a beautiful story - thanks for sharing!

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