You’ve seen them. I know you’ve seen them. They are those quilts that have a huge bouquet of flowers in a teeny, tiny, little bitty pot. It is a pot that is so small that anyone with a lick of common sense could tell you the whole works would just fall over if you tried to place that bouquet on the table.
Those quilts have every petal of each flower tucked perfectly in place. Pointy leaves have the edges turned, and you can barely see the appliqué stitches that hold them to the background fabric. Half-inch circles, with nary a flat edge, become berries, and the quilter doesn’t skimp on the number.
The blocks are huge, and generally four of them make up the top. Four blocks and a border, that is. The borders are every bit as intricate as the blocks. In the example shown from the Byron and Sara Rhodes Dillow Collection from the International Quilt Study Center & Museum, Lincoln, Neb., you can see the eagles have eyes that had to have been made using reverse appliqué. The eagles’ beaks are sharp, and the tail feathers have a beautiful, feathery edge. And then there are the feet. I can’t help but wonder what has happened to the feet. They appear to be trying to pull their way out of a puddle of glue. Clearly, the quilter could have done claws, but no, we have oddly misshapen duck feet instead.
Marge Wetmore of Urbana, Ill., recently purchased a four-block quilt made as a mourning quilt around 1870. Again we see the little bitty pot, but this time it holds large, leafy stems as well as mourning doves. The colors, once reds and greens, are faded, and the black fabric is shattering, yet the quilt tells its sad story still. Doves mate for life. On two of the stems, we see pairs, and on the center stem is one lone bird, which indicates its mate is gone.
Carolyn Scott’s quilt, made in 1852-1853, is a wonderful example of a true folk art quilt that uses the tiny pot. The maker, Nancy Dilliner Brewster, made this quilt while rearing 13 children. She used six large rectangular blocks instead of four, and the flowers on both sides of the quilt grow toward a center strip. The border is charming, with a vine, decked with buds and blooms, winding its way down both sides of the quilt. The quilt has been handed down through five generations since it was made in Bloomfield, Iowa.
I wonder why quilters used those tiny pots. I have to confess that I would find it difficult to use a piece that was that far out of proportion to the rest of the pieces had I not seen such amazing examples. I have a hard time imagining I could have pulled that little pot out of thin air while sitting around working on my quilt, thinking, “Oh, I know what I’ll do. I’m about out of room here, so I’ll just put these flowers in a tiny pot. Yeah, that’s just the ticket! It’ll work!”
I would have looked at that big bouquet and thought, “Well, #@#%%&#! Now what am I going to do?” And to be very honest about it, I probably would have started removing flowers, stems and leaves to make room for a decently sized pot, one that would actually hold all those flowers.
I am envious of the quilters who made these quilts. They must have been very self-confident women who had little or no concern about what others might think of their artistic expression. Who knows, maybe the pot was just so inconsequential to the whole, it became irrelevant.
I often think that by the time we become adults, much of the artistic freedom we enjoyed as children has been pounded out of us during the years. Children are told to stay within the lines when they color. Drawings are critiqued by grownups who tell them that they need to perfect the shape of that flower or this tree or that house. The sky must always be blue, and daffodils must always be yellow. Unless, you’re four, that is, and no one has begun to coach you yet.
There’s no doubt that I learned my lessons and learned them well. It’s why I fret about proportion and other details. Perhaps it’s time to throw caution to the wind and see if I can use a little bitty pot for my flowers.
It’s got to be more fun, right?