The Story of an Orphan Quilt

Fiction, based on the

Golden Harvest Quilters Magical Melbourne Tour,

1996 to the International Quilt and Craft Exhibition.

An American quilter and collector of quilts packed up part of her collection of antique quilts for a trip to an International Quilt and Craft Fair in Australia. There were quilts from around the world, some finished just in time for the exhibition, some made over the last ten years in Australia which had been used and loved since they had won blue ribbons, showcase quilts from Japan, a display of work by Australian and international tutors, and the antiques just completed the display. Quilters came from far and wide for the event, by public transport, cars, planes and by the coach load.

I was on one of those coaches, which had brought 40 of us from country South Australia and Adelaide to the Victorian capital for three days. We completed most of the trip during daylight hours the day before the exhibition opened, arriving at the hotel after dark. Next morning we were at the exhibition soon after the doors opened, and the forty of us disappeared in about 25 different directions, never to meet again until we got back on the bus that night.

I had met my room-mate only the day before when she got on the bus in Adelaide, but we started wandering through the display together. We saw old friends, quilts which had been in our state exhibitions over the previous ten years, and met some mutual friends who had also come from Sth Aussie. We marvelled at the way Japanese quilters used fabric, and studied the fabrics in antique quilts.

As I walked past one of the antique quilts I got goose bumps, but though there were some interesting fabrics, the quilt didn’t really stand out as special in any way. Just a sampler made from assorted orphan blocks, not the best example in the display. We completed a quick tour of the exhibition, and had time for a quick wander around again before we had to meet the bus, and as we walked through the display of antique quilts I got goose bumps again, and I turned around to see that very ordinary sampler quilt behind me.

Just before we left the venue we had a quick look at the vendors hall, and had a chat to a couple of American girls who were at one of the stalls  talking to the wholesaler. As we walked away my roomy nudged me and said, “That was Dianna and Libby !” I nearly fell over, looking over my shoulder at them. Libby had written many articles in my favourite magazine. Dianna, the owner of the antique quilt collection, had written the book my quilt teacher had used as the basis of her lessons I had done, and which I had used as a basis for the classes I had taught for several years before my own book evolved. Wow! This was the perfect ending to a glorious day, and we hadn’t bought a thing!

Despite all the wonderful quilts I had seen my mind kept going back to that sampler, even in the middle of the night when the garbage truck woke me up.

Next day my roomy and I joined forces again, for a closer examination of the quilt display and maybe even some shopping. As we entered the venue a voice with an unmistakable American accent said “You’re back!” This time we swapped names as we chatted to the two famous faces again. Libby had to take a class, but Dianna joined us until she had to attend to do a lecture, spending most of that time amongst her antique quilts. That sampler was still giving me goose bumps whenever I went anywhere near it, even when I didn’t realise it was close by, but Dianna didn’t know anything about the quilt except where she had found it and the little bit of information she could guess because of her knowledge of the fabrics.

That day we spent time talking to almost all the tutors as they took a look at the display between classes and lectures, and we hadn’t booked into any classes! We also perused the vendors, both retail and wholesale, met people from all over Australia including friends and acquaintances from South Australia as well as international tourists, donned white gloves when the organisers realised there were far more people coming to the exhibition than they had ever envisaged, and even spent time selling fabric for Dianna so she didn’t have to pack up her stall when she went to present a lecture.

During all the excitement that sampler quilt kept attracting me back time and time again, so I took heaps of photos for future reference.

Our third day in Melbourne we had to go back to the exhibition to do some shopping and made up for two days of abstinence, a final look at the quilt display. We managed to catch up with a lot of the people we had met the previous day, both the famous and the unknowns, and I headed back to that sampler several more times, and took even more photos.

The magic of that tour didn’t end until we were all off the bus at home, and I sent off the rolls and rolls of film to be processed. When they arrived back I had a quick look, and got those goose bumps all over again, when I got to the first lot of photos of that sampler, and again a couple of packets of photos later when I got to the second lot.

Life proceeded at it’s usual hectic pace, but every so often I would browse through the photos of the Magical Melbourne Tour, and that same quilt always gave me goose bumps, but not long after my grandmother died, the goose bumps became mountains, and were joined by shivers up and down the spine when one of her sisters gave me a letter found in Grandma’s papers from her aunt, who had emigrated to Canada when most of the family had come to Australia. It was given to me because I was the only quilter in the family, and there was a couple of paragraphs about a quilt this great-great aunt or great-great-great aunt had made. There was nothing to indicate what sort of quilt it was, just that she had finished it, and given it to her daughter before she moved to America with her husband.

Grandma didn’t make any quilts, or do much sewing or craft work of any sort, but she hoarded every magazine article and pattern for any craft which came her way. Eventually the whole box and dice was handed to me. Every so often I would sort through some of it, keeping some, passing some on, binning lots, but it was a huge task, and I several times I was tempted to just ditch the lot.

One day I mae up my mind it was going out, after one last quick sort. Thank goodness I made that last sort! In amongst the pages from magazines and patterns I found a rough hand drawn scribble, much as I did when planning a quilt. It showed the layout of a sampler quilt, with odd size blocks, with the names of a some of the blocks scribbled in the margins, with arrows pointing to their placement in the diagram. The writing was similar to Grandmas, but not done by her hand. The scrap of paper wasn’t dated, but then I remembered the letter about the quilt. That letter was dated, and the handwriting was the same! My aunt had drawn the diagram, perhaps about the same quilt.

Wow! Maybe I had found a quilter in my Dad’s family, though maybe she just made the one! But the diagram was for a sampler of odd sized blocks, the sort made to use up orphan blocks made as samples before making a quilt, or left overs from a quilt, so I like to think she made more than one.

One day I was browsing through some quilt show photos looking for some inspiration for a new class project, when the hair stood up on the back of my neck. I had found the photos of that quilt again. It wasn’t what I was looking for, but I kept looking at it, until I realised that the layout of the blocks was similar to the diagram drawn by my aunt.

I got out the diagram and placed it next to the photo. Not similar, the same. Two of the three named blocks were there, the other name I didn’t recognise, but I didn’t recognise the block either!

I got out the catalogue from the exhibition, and read the little bit of information about the quilt. Dates gleaned from the fabric were a close match to the date of the letter. The place the quilt had been found was the same part area of USA as the daughter had moved to. Is it the same quilt?

Who knows? And does it really matter. One antique quilt now has a possible family history where it had none. And maybe it is a link for those interested in the family history to follow up, but for me, I am happy with the knowledge that I may have found my quilting history.

The Magical Melbourne Tour part of the story is real, the rest is imagination triggered by the goose bumps which are real, and still happen when I look at the photos of that quilt!

Judy Butcher 2008

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