By Donna di Natale
Donna di Natale
My friend Bill recently told me that he had some old quilt pieces. He didn’t know much about them, what to do with them or if they were of any value, but knowing that I am interested in old quilts, he thought I might be able to fill in some of the blanks.
First out of the box were 47 pieced “rings,” all in pristine condition. The hand-stitched 1930s dress prints were as crisp and bright as could be. The edges had all been carefully turned under and basted. It was obvious that they had been well cared for, whether on purpose or by accident.
What was odd about each of these was the large circle in the middle. The circles looked unbalanced, and the center opening seemed too large. Upon further questioning, I discovered that the pieces were originally fan shaped, with eight “blades” in each fan. At some point, another well-meaning friend had sewn them into rings.
When we unstitched one circle, returning it to the original four fans, it was clear that these pieces were intended to be a fan quilt. The plan is for these pieces to be appliquéd onto blocks that will be sewn together and hand quilted.
Next out of the box were some blocks that really sent my heart singing: 12 hand-sewn, string-pieced blocks with the newspaper foundation squares still attached. Bill’s mother had given the box to his wife. They think Bill’s grandmother, Katie Knoche, probably made the quilt pieces. We surmised they were made in the 1930s, when Katie and her husband, Ed, lived near what is now the Martin City neighborhood in Kansas City, Mo.
One of the newspaper pieces is dated April 10, 1934, so the blocks had to have been made sometime around 1934. This concurs with the fabrics, mostly prints and shirtings from the 1920s and early ’30s.
The blocks held good news and bad. The bad news is the newspaper has been in contact with the fabric for around 80 years. The acid used to break down the wood pulp has leached into some of the fabrics, leaving the telltale brown stains. There are other stains and unknown substances on some of the pieces as well.
The good news is in the historical value of the newspaper. At least some of the pieces are from the Springfield (Missouri) Leader. The advertisements reveal the cost of common household items during the desperate years of the Depression and Dust Bowl. Curtain panels, 49 cents; potatoes, 7 pounds for 25 cents; Kellogg’s Rice Krispies, 12 cents a box; and coffee, 30 cents a pound.
An attractive seven-room house in town was a “real bargain” at $2,300, while a foreclosed 39-acre riverfront farm with a two-bedroom bungalow and outbuildings was listed at $1,200.
The stories also reflect the times. Rear Adm. Richard E. Byrd Jr. and his party celebrated New Year’s Day while on their second expedition to Antarctica. And Mel Ott was tied for home runs with a young first baseman named Lou Gehrig.
But back to the blocks. As you can see in the photos, the fabric strings were sewn diagonally to the newspaper. The center strip was placed first, then strips were added to the sides. The blocks were then squared and trimmed, just as we would make them today. I am amazed at the skill of this quilter. The seams are so uniform, and the stitches are evenly spaced and sized. This wasn’t this person’s first quilt.
At some point, Katie acquired a sewing machine. The small blocks are all hand-sewn into 8-block rectangles, but six of these rectangles were sewn into blocks using a machine. How pleased she must have been. I’d like to think that Edward bought her one of those new Singer Featherweights, introduced in 1933 at the Chicago World’s Fair.
I’ve offered Bill several options for these wonderful blocks. They could be sewn together, but the resulting piece would be cumbersome and would never be useable as a quilt, so I suggest leaving them as they are. While it might seem that the papers should be removed to prevent further damage, doing so would destroy the historical value of the blocks. The paper pieces indicate not only the time period but also the technique used to make the blocks.
A single block could be floated in a frame, between two pieces of UV-blocking glass, so that both sides could be viewed. But perhaps the best thing to do is to leave them flat, wrapped in acid-free archival tissue, and placed in an acid-free archival box. Perhaps there is a museum somewhere that would love to add them to its collection or a textile department at a university that could use them as a study project.
The most important advice I can give the family is to document as much as they know about the blocks and place this information with the pieces. Regardless of who views them in the future, they should know that the pieces were made in Missouri, possibly by a woman name Katie Knoche. And that she was an excellent seamstress, skilled in the art of quilting.
Katie, I wish I had known you. I wish I could tell you how I admire your skill, and how much these blocks are still loved after all these years.
Donna di Natale is an author and editor for Kansas City Star Quilts. She writes every Wednesday.