Irish Patchwork: Piecing Frugality and Necessity

“When life gives you scraps, Make quilts” -anonymous

My mother’s diary is filled with entries describing the latest finished quilt square that she hand-stitched in cabin camps, tents and a tiny wooden trailer while moving from job to job with my father during the 1930’s Dust Bowl. As a young child, I lived with my Aunt Lois who spent her evenings embroidering pillow cases, or tea towels made from feed sacks. They turned fabric into works of art from their creative minds. These hard working women of Scot-Irish heritage sewed from necessity and with frugality, traits handed down from generation to generation of Celtic ancestors to even me.

The history of Irish patchwork and needlework is one of women trying to not only survive, but to thrive in difficult circumstances. In the poverty stricken villages, these stitchers gathered scraps of material around them and created patchwork quilts of amazing beauty. Each bit of fabric represented an opportunity to express their underestimated talents as artists. Most important, putting these pieces into cohesive designs provided color and a sense of luxury in households where a coat or a blanket covered a bed. Beauty in the home started with the desire for beauty in the feminine heart.

Wedding Chain Quilt

Needlework was second nature to most 19th century Irish girls who acquired quilt making skills from the English gentry who hired them as servants. They learned to wield a needle as a way to make a living and to provide as a wife. Create, make do, and mend: the ultimate goal of these skills. Fabricating items of beauty from little or no supplies became the challenge as the women fashioned squares of log cabin, crazy, Irish chain, mosaic, block and applique for their homes.

Traditional Irish patchwork quilts comprised of only two layers: the top and the bottom stitched together in wave or chevron patterns. Most families cut up old clothing to make the patchwork top. Those who were too poor to use their clothing procured pieces from dressmakers, shop samples, factories and linen mills. Sometimes they gathered scraps from linen handkerchiefs, table cloths or pajama manufacturers for a touch of elegance. Shirt factories in Belfast produced many fabric scraps that were sold in bags according to weight. Workers stitched patchworks in their spare time and created a bit of cash flow for the family. These shirt patchwork quilts were named The Derry Quilts, The Shirt Quilts, and the Belfast Patchwork. The source and material labeled these comforters. The designs reflected the skill of the needle worker.

Irish Chain Quilt

In the mountainous area of Ireland, sheep abounded. This allowed the possibility of a third, insulating layer of wool for the creators of patchworks. As a thrifty move, an old blanket or sheet could have been used to give extra weight and warmth to the primitive and rough looking creations. These rural areas boasted hand-woven fabrics like tweeds and suiting which contributed to their crazy quilts’ functional appearance. A woman’s desire for beauty gave way to necessity.

The potato famine in 1845-49 created an exodus from Ireland to America. The last night in Ireland was known as the American Wake, because no one expected to see those who emigrated ever again. Their few belongings were tied in a patchwork. Women stitched quilts on the long passage over. Roselind Shaw, an Irish quilt historian, states that “when the emigrants arrived on the beaches their quilts were washed and laid on the blocks to dry.”1.  In the United States, they discovered exciting patterns, and sent them back to their relatives to piece. By creating quilts with traditional Irish squares, and making the new ones at the same time as family across a cold sea, the fires of relationships still burned.

During the Second World War, the American Army was stationed in Northern Ireland. Although the Irish had access to plain white muslin feed bags that they used for backings, the women sought out the sacks from the American bakery in Crumlin, co. Antrim. The flour bags from the States were infused with color and designs that delighted the Irish quilt maker. A bit of beauty in the midst of need.

Times changed. The Irish gave in to the materialistic ways of the world, and traded in their old bedding for the look of candlewick and fine linens. The older generation viewed the patchwork quilts as reminders of hard times when they cut up their clothes for bedding. Ridding themselves of the past provided avenues for beauty and hope in the futures of these Irish immigrants.

When I go into thrift shops or walk through garage sales, the quilts call my name from under stacks of tossed items. Sometimes the fabric quality is good, but many times it is apparent that the material is losing its weave. I like to imagine the woman who took the time to stitch the pieces together, and consider the pattern and fabrics she chose. Were any of the materials recycled? A patchwork is a snapshot into a woman’s life, heart and mind. A testimony of her necessity and frugality. A hint of her creativity and love of beauty.

Touching the fabrics of a quilt reminds me of my mother, my aunt, my heritage. It reminds me of home.

May the raindrops fall lightly on your brow.
May the soft winds freshen your spirit.
May the sunshine brighten your heart
May the burdens of the day rest lightly upon you.
And may God enfold you in the patchwork of His love.

Irish Blessing

 

  1. “Early Irish Patchwork Quilts and Customs”, by Roselind Shaw, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Quilting Through Time, online store.

Irish countryside photo credit
Wedding Chain Quilt photo credit
Irish Chain Photo Credit
Quilting woman photo credit


Dust Between the StitchesDust Between the Stitches tells the story of Addie Meyers as she tries to save the family homestead from foreclosure while teaching in a one room schoolhouse for script. Each chapter of the book starts with a quilt pattern, many of them based on Sunbonnet Sue and Overall Sam. A picture of life in the Dust Bowl emerges in this novel that will warm your heart and inspire your faith.

3 Comments:

  1. Very interesting history of this art and its evolution. I have never thought about its importance to women as you have described.

  2. Your articles on quilts are very informative and interesting. I will be quoting from them when I teach a class in Sign and Symbol in Art this Fall. It will also cover truth to media and placing art within it’s cultural and historical context. Thank you for your insights.

  3. What a delightful and informative post! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

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