Sunday, July 05, 2009

Mourning Quilts

Mourning quilts have a significant if not morbid place in American quilting history. When I first ran across them in my study of antique quilts, I couldn't quite get my head around the idea. (The Kentucky Coffin Quilt described here especially creeped me out.) Not anything I thought I'd ever partake in. And then my husband died - 9 years ago today. Not right away, but eventually the making of a mourning quilt just happened, and happened again. I came to realize it was a natural enough expression of my grief & love through a medium that was helping me to hold on.

The quilt above didn't exactly start out as a mourning quilt. It's one I'd planned to make for my husband., but hadn't made its way very far up the priority list We followed motorcycle road racing on TV and attended several AMA rounds at Road America. Joey Dunlop was a particular favorite of Allen's, a hero of sorts, because he was still racing and winning in his mid 40's. Allen being about the same age loved seeing Joey get the better of the young whipper snappers when we'd watch the Isle of Man TT races. When I ran across instructions for making an authentic Isle of Man quilt, there was no question that I'd make one, and use Joey's racing colors.

As fate would have it, Joey & Allen both died
just 3 days apart while riding their beloved motorcycles. A year later I decided to start the quilt anyway, using some Dutch reproduction fabric Allen had approved of (and then blanched when he found out how much I'd paid for it). The quilt is essentially made up of log cabin blocks with the "logs" being overlapping folded strips hand sewn to a muslin foundation. Where the authentic Isle of Man part comes in is in the measuring and cutting of the pieces. All pieces are torn using parts of the hand to determine widths. I had not anticipated how therapeutic all that ripping of fabric would be!

From there on, it was picking up a block to handsew while watching tv - nothing steady, just when other handwork wasn't pressing or I felt the need to focus on pleasant memories, and yes, to mourn. We took some great trips on that motorcycle, searching out the beautiful and the odd in the Upper Midwest and into Canada. Above is Allen at the lookout above Lake of the Clouds in Michigan. Below is the Canada trip where the goal was to see a moose. The moose crossing sign just cracked us up.

By 2004 I'd finished as many blocks as I had fabric and sewn them into this small quilt. In that time I'd collected poems and stories and words of encouragement, as well as the names of more motorcycle racers who had died. It seemed appropriate to pen these on the back. Every July I get out the quilt, read all those words and names, and remember. It brings me close to him somehow, and brings me comfort. It's a quilt that I don't share much, being so personal.
I suppose my recording of the additional deaths over the years would strike some as morbid, another reason I hesitate to share. It has given me some insight into those women and their mourning quilts that I couldn't get my head around, that's for sure.

There's racing on TV later today, and you better believe I'll be watching. In the meantime, here's one of those things that got written on the back of the quilt. It's called North American Prayer.

I give you this thought to keep-
I am with you still-
I do not sleep.
I am a thousand words
that blow,
I am the diamond glints
on snow.
I am the sunlight on
ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush
of birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars
that shine at night.
Do not think of me as gone.
I am with you still
in each new dawn.


Terry said...

Beautiful quilt, beautiful thoughts. It is true, at least for me, that our thoughts and feelings become imbedded in our work and stay there to be revisited each time we bring that piece out.

I am sorry to read how tragically, and unexpectedly you lost your husband.

Pat said...

very beautiful
very touching
peace to you today

RHONDA said...

That's a beautiful poem. Thanks for sharing it and your story.

I, too have made a mourning quilt, although I didn't realise that's what it was at the time. I just felt an overwhelming urge to make it for the wife of a close friend who also died young, and very suddenly. It was an integral part of the grieving process for me, so I empathise with your need to make these quilts.

Scrappy Cat said...

Such a moving post - I'm glad you were able to share. And your quilt is lovely.

The Idaho Beauty said...

Thanks everyone.

Suzanne said...

Dear Idaho Beauty, I came across this older post when I was searching for information on mourning quilts and found a treasure. Your blog is beautiful, and and I will return to see more. I connected to your need to create while grieving, and the eerie fact that my son died eight years to the date of that post makes me feel a strong connection to you. I began quilting to work through my grief and also began blogging to express all my feelings rather than locking them away. Thank you for this wonderful tour. Please visit my blog if you like