Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Quilt Making in Grandma's Time - Hand Carded Cotton Quilt Batting

I am trying to uncover the mystery of two quilts that were among my mother's things when she passed away.  I am pretty sure at least one of them, a basket quilt, was made by my grandmother, my mom's mother, Lillian.  The maker of the other, a Colonial Lady quilt, is less certain.  It's possible it was made by my great-grandmother, who was known for her fine stitching.  I have asked my aunt and cousins for their help in identifying it and am waiting to hear back from them.

Basket quilt, believed to be made by my grandmother Lillian.
In the meantime, I went back and re-read the transcript of a conversation my aunt had with my grandmother in 1983, when Grandma was 78 years old.  My aunt recorded several conversations with my grandmother, who lived her whole life in Louisiana (1905-1991).  I am so glad my aunt taped those conversations, especially since we lived so far away (I grew up in Wisconsin) and could only visit every couple of years.  

My Grandpa Nathan and Grandma Lillian,
holding my sister, in 1959.
Among other things, Grandma talked about how she started quilting.  These are her words, in her own vernacular:

"My mother taught me how to piece quilts when I was about 15 years old.  I started learning how to piece quilts.  And when I got engaged, I really got on the ball.  I'd go do field work all the morning, and when I come in, instead of resting at dinnertime, I'd be piecing on my quilts.  I used a machine because it was faster, and when I got my tops pieced, me and my mother sat up at night and quilted by a little old brass lamp that didn't have no globe on it.  We just set it between us and we quilted till it got bedtime.  And when I got married, I had five quilts that I had pieced myself.  But they was just nine-patches and just string quilts.  My  mother didn't do any fancy quilting.  She just made quilts to keep you warm.  I didn't learn how to do that till after I got married and later years."

Five quilts might not sound like a lot in these days of machine quilting, online fabric stores, precuts, and a multitude of ready-made batting options.  But when you're making your own quilt batting literally from scratch (i.e., picking and carding the cotton for it), bleaching feed sacks for backing, and hand quilting by lantern light after a long, hot, hard day's work, producing a finished quilt takes on a whole different meaning.

Cotton (or wool) carders, used by my grandmother 
and great-grandmother to make quilt batting.
My mother wrote a narrative to supplement my grandma's stories, for which I am equally grateful.  Here is more from my grandmother (in blue) along with  my mother's explanation (in red) on the subject of growing and carding cotton for quilt batting:

Cotton carders were made of wood, 4" x 9", with a wooden handle inset in the center of the long side.  Each card had an inner lining of steel wire pins about 1/2 inch long, closely spaced.  These cards were used in sets, one for each hand.  Tufts of cotton were placed on one of the cards and the other was used to brush across the cotton, stretching and separating the fibers until a bat, 4" x 9" x 1/2" was formed.  

When enough had been made to fill a quilt, they were laid out in rows onto the stretched lining of the quilt.  The quilt top was then laid out on the top, tacked in place, and the quilting began.  Every homemaker had to make enough quilts to keep the family warm during cold weather because [in Louisiana] the homes weren't heated at night.

"I set up many a night and carded bats.  Me and my mother-in-law.  And we took three straight chairs—we'd card 'em, packin' down to the top of the chair for one quilt.  That's lots of bats.  And we scrapped up the cotton in the field after the cotton pickin' was over.  And there'd be a lock here and a lock there, and maybe you'd get a whole burr, once in a while, of cotton.  And then we'd have it ginned, and that's what we made our bats out of."
Most farmers at that time planted at least one field of cotton.  It was a "cash" crop that was picked, ginned, and made into bales to be sold.  If the land was needed some years for growing other crops, the farmer would only raise a small patch of cotton, just enough to provide the cotton needed by his own family to make new mattresses or batting for quilts.  Cotton stalks grow to about four or five feet in height.  The boles that form after the plants bloom are shaped similar to a green hickory nut with the outer shell formed in segments.  The sun matures these boles until they pop open, revealing a tuft of snow-white cotton in each segment.  

All cotton was picked by hand.  Each picker had a long canvas sack that hung from the shoulder by a strap to put the cotton in as it was picked.  This cotton sack was up to six feet long and was dragged along between cotton rows as the cotton was picked.  Hired pickers were paid by the number of pounds of cotton picked in a day.  When the cotton was at its prime for harvest, all men, women, and children went to the field to help get the crop in before the weather turned bad and ruined the crop.  It was extremely hot, backbreaking work.  The dried shells, or boles, have very sharp points and would rip into the fingers of anyone who wasn't careful to use the right technique to grab the cotton from the open boles.  
"And we had to pick cotton.  Papa'd usually have to hire some of the neighbors to pick cotton.  We'd pick cotton, and Papa'd get a wagon full of cotton and have it tromped down with a top bed on it.  He'd carry it to the gin.  [My sister] and I never'd seen a cotton gin, so one time he told us we could go with him to the gin.  That was up at Dodson.  And we left home about 4:00 or 4:30, way 'fore daylight.  And it was cold.  And we's ridin' on top of that wagon of cotton.  We spread a quilt up there so we could wrap up in it, to keep from gettin' so cold.  Papa was drivin', so we got a way on over there and Papa was so cold, well, he let me drive.  And he got down and walked to get warm."
"I guess I must've been about eight or ten year old (c. 1913 to 1915).  And the man, when we got over there, he carried us all through the gin and showed us how it was sucked off the wagon with a big round pipe-like deal.  And the man held it over the wagon and it just sucked it up into that gin, and he carried us around there where it come out, and it was so pretty and white.  And then he showed us how it went on through, made bales."
Some of the boles didn't open in time for the main picking but would open later as they matured.  These freshly opened boles and tufts of cotton left after the first picking provided enough cotton to make batting for several quilts if the field was "scrapped" (picked over).  That is the way Grandma Lillian and Great-grandma Lela usually got the cotton for making quilt bats.  All cotton had to be "ginned" (taken to a cotton gin where machinery was used to remove the seeds).  Then it was used for mattresses or quilt batting.

"And that's the way I got my first mattress that I ever had, 'fore I married.  My daddy had a cotton field, and when they got through pickin' cotton, I scrapped over the cotton patch after it all got open, and I got enough cotton to make me a mattress.  And my daddy took it to have it ginned, and my  mother and I made the bed.  That's the way people used to make their beds.  They didn't go to town and buy 'em.  I got several beds right now that I—it's been homemade beds.  But now they want hard, firm beds, but back then they didn't."
Grandma went on to talk more about quilting, and maybe I'll continue her stories another time.  When (if) the mystery of the other quilt is solved, I'll post more on that too.

I hope you enjoyed hearing a little about quilt making in my grandmother's time.  Our lives are so very different now, but the love of quilting is a common thread that binds past generations with the present. 

For a look at the technique of hand carding cotton, see this video on YouTube. (This woman rolls her carded cotton into a puni for spinning, whereas Grandma would have left the cotton bats flat, so everything after about the one minute thirty second mark would not apply to carding cotton for quilt batting.)

And be sure to visit Colorado Lady for more vintage sharing!


  1. This is so interesting!! We toured a colonial town near Milwaukee a few years back and they were carding wool. It looks like the same technique. I could picture your grandmother and mother sitting on rocking chairs talking about quilting. This is so precious!! (By the way, your grandfather is the spitting image of my father!!)

  2. Great post! I love the history and the quilts. thanks for sharing a part of your history with us. Don't know how/where my grandma got her batting.

  3. so much work went into making quilts back then. I have hand pieced and do hand quilting for fun - I can't imagine doing a lot of that after a full day of work outside in the fields too though - women were a lot tougher back then I think

  4. What a lovely old quilt, and such wonderful history. I hope you are able to solve the mystery surrounding of who made the other quilt.

  5. I love to know the history of where an old quilt came from.I hope the mystery of your second quilt is solved . There's something amazing about owning something that someone worked on for hours way back when.

    I had no idea how batting was made. Fascinating! Im so glad I can go to the shop and buy mine ready made!

    Great Post P.

  6. What a great post, P.! I loved reading the story in your grandmother's "voice", so to speak. It is amazing how far we've come and how easy it is for us now...

    It's funny -I was talking to my daughter the other day about the days before computers and photocopiers in offices - I imagine she felt the same way about that!

  7. Thanks for sharing the story, P. Very enjoyable reading! I had no idea that the batting could be made like that. I hope you get some more information on the other quilt.

    I've had a pair of carders for a long time that were used for carding wool. I have no idea where I got them!

  8. Now I really feel like a spoiled quilter, not having to roll my own batting. The money we spend on batting,though we think it may be high priced---OH it isn't considering what you just said!!

    This post was so informative and it really made me treasure the art of quilting even more.

    Hope you get that mystery worked out soon:)

  9. Thanks so much for the wonderful post. I enjoyed it very much, and would love to read more. If I had to make my own batting...well I guess quilting would come to an end for me. Oh how spoiled we are today.

    Hope you get more answers regarding the quilts.

    blessings, jilly

  10. I love all quilts, old or new. This was such an interesting story from your family. I am very familiar with the precess they used many years ago for quilting. It is rare to find one done by hand if you do it is very costly. I have several that are hand pieced and hand quilted. I treasure each one.

  11. P, this post has touched my heart to the core! So hard to explain, but with Daddy's passing at Christmas, I have felt such a connection, and such a loss to my past. How absolutely wonderful that you have this connection saved by your mother for years to come. Incredibly precious share, thank you for it ~

  12. What fabulous information to have!! To have that story, in your grandma's own words, is just priceless!! Thanks for sharing this with us, I really enjoyed it.

  13. Thank you for sharing this very interesting and personal post. I remember my grandmother carding cotton for her quilts, and she too used feed sacks for some of the fabric. The wooded carders are still in our family. Any quilt is an amazing amount of work, but considering the conditions during those years, it makes a quilt all the more a treasure. ~ Sarah

  14. What a great post, so interesting and informative. wow...I thought it was a chore to go buy the batting!!!

    Thanks so much for the anniversary wishes! It was a good day, and look forward to many more to come!!

    Have a great VTT and a great weekend.

  15. Having your aunt right that down in pricless! How wonderful that you hear your grandmother in the writings. Beautiful quilt, the kind I like to snuggle under!

  16. how interesting Thanks

  17. I've seen some of those cotton carders before, but didn't realize they were used to make batting!

  18. How interesting!! I knew a bit about cotton carders but not this much and never even thought of all that work that past generations had to do.
    Also, how wonderful that you have these recordings. It must be a blessing to listen to!

  19. Wow, thank you so much for sharing your personal history, what a wonderful insight to the life and times of your Great Grandparents, I felt like I was there, I want to read more!

    My Grandmother quilted by hand, we have some of her quilts but I'm quite sure she didn't process the cotton!

  20. What a fascinating story! I never thought about where batting might have come from.

  21. Such a sweet post. I love that you have recordings of your grandmother. Very precious.


I welcome your comments! Thanks for taking time to leave a note!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...