Tuesday, December 30, 2014

What to do about Old Poly?

I came across a quilt top a couple months ago that was pieced by my maternal grandmother.  I've shown a couple of her quilts or quilt tops in the past, most recently the one I took apart and remade last year (Grandmother's Garden).

Grandmother's Garden - remade version
Grandma Lillian loved to piece scrap quilts, but her quilt-making was challenged in later years by macular degeneration, which slowly led to blindness.  At some point, when she could no longer see well enough to operate the sewing machine, she began hand-piecing quilts instead. 

It was about this same time, in the 1970s, that double-knit polyester was very popular in clothing.  Grandma loved her double-knits and made herself many dresses and pants out of the stuff, as did my mother and other family members and friends.  Double-knit scraps were thus plentiful and found their way into quilts.

If you're a baby boomer, you too may remember having come across a double-knit polyester quilt or two in your lifetime.  Whether you have good memories of those quilts or bad, these colorful quilts were nonetheless "interesting," to say the least. 

At this point in my life, I can honestly say I think double-knit quilts are truly interesting and, in their own way, beautiful.  But when I was younger, I had a different view.  Funny how one's perception of things often changes with the passing of time.  I used to not like the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin much, either.  Go figure.

There are people today who collect double-knit polyester quilts.  Bill Volckening, of Wonkyworld, is one of them.  He's shown some real beauties on his blog through the years (enter "double knit" in the blog's search feature to see).  Victoria Findlay Wolfe has commented about these kinds of quilts and their influence in her life.  One of her quilts on display at the Wisconsin Quilt Museum this summer was done in double-knits as an homage to her grandmother Elda and that genre of quilting.

Retro Poly Mod by Victoria Findlay Wolfe
Grandma Lillian pieced quite a few double-knit quilt tops, and every one of her children's families received at least one.  My mom had two of them, made with pieces cut in sort of an elongated hexagon, all hand-pieced.  Unfortunately, some of the seams were already coming loose by the time she got them.  I'm sure Mom faced the dilemma of repairing or possibly remaking, and then finishing these quilts, and that may have seemed daunting.  As a result, the quilt tops were stowed away.  I do know that at least one of my aunts did use hers, as is, as a throw. 

Mom gave me one of the hexagon quilt tops when I moved into my own place.  I also just kept it stored, in a plastic bag inside an old suitcase in the basement.  I obviously didn't appreciate the quilt much at the time.  It was the early 1980s, and I was very much over polyester double-knit.  If it wasn't country blue and mauve, or peach, there didn't seem to be a place for it in my decor.  We can all have a laugh about that decorating scheme now, though it's probably only a matter of time until it's back.

The quilt top I recently found was not the hexagon quilt, but a different one I don't remember having seen before, a 16-patch.  It was among my late mother's things.  There is no doubt it was made by my grandmother, probably later than the hexagon quilts, by the looks of things. 

The seams were stitched with between 1/8 and 1/2 inches as a seam allowance, and all points between.  It's a wonder how she made the disparate sized 16-patch blocks fit together at all.  Maybe her propensity to take an extra tuck or pleat here and there, and/or the stretchy sashing helped.  The sashing itself obeys no particular rules.  Sometimes it lines up with the row next to it, more often it does not. Obviously, Grandma didn't give a hoot about the quilt police!

She utilized some non-double-knit (but still synthetic) fabrics to round out some of the blocks.  Unlike the double-knits, these pieces are woven and starting to fray, aided by the fact that they're not cut on any particular grain. 

The sashing fabric feels like Qiana, another synthetic fabric from the '60s and '70s.  Looks like it may have been a muumuu in a different life.

Remember those silky disco shirts?  Yeah, it's that stuff in all its slinky, non-breathable glory.  Brings to mind memories of how those shirts felt to the touch after my dance partner had worked up a sweat by the light of the revolving mirror ball (ew).  I can almost smell the Brut cologne.

Anyway, I wanted to find the other hexagon quilt top, after I came upon the 16-patch, so I could show pictures of both quilts.  Unfortunately, I can't seem to find the hexie anywhere.  The old suitcase where I last remembered seeing it?  Empty.  I've dug through the entire storage space in the basement and come up with nothing.  I'm beginning to suspect that in my purge of a couple years back, I inadvertently drove it to Goodwill along with a load of other bags full of stuff.  Makes my heart sink to think I did that, but unless it turns up elsewhere, it's starting to look like a real probability.

Back to this particular 16-patch double-knit quilt, part of me wants to take it apart and remake it, using the better bits and laying aside the rest.  It wouldn't necessarily end up being a 16-patch quilt again, maybe just a straight patchwork or something else entirely.

The blocks seem to have originally been cut between 3-1/4 and 3-3/4 inches square (again, measurements are widely variable).  I'd have to gently wash it, then take the entire thing apart and recut the pieces to a uniform size.

As it happened, the other day when I was shopping at Goodwill last weekend, I found a bag of scraps, including two pieces of tomato-red double-knit, about 1/2 yard each (60 inches wide).  So I'd have that available to possibly add to and liven things up.

Or perhaps I should just fold it back up and store it away, keeping it as a reminder of my grandmother's handiwork?  More or less preserve it as is—for better or worse—for posterity, a tactile and visual record of her latter quilting years and the fabric medium of the times?

Your thoughts?  What would you do?


  1. We have one of my husband's grandma's double knit quilts. It is a generous queen size. There are places that need repair. Places that I have repaired once already too. The actual fabric of the quilt is so heavy, the seams on the sides of the quilt are under a lot of stress when it is on a bed. For now, I'm not repairing it. There are too many quilts I want to make and not enough time to do them all.

  2. I absolutely love your grandmothers garden quilt! What a fabulous example of classic quilting, and a super fun block design

  3. What fun to read this! I have a small amount of nine and sixteen patches pieced by my Grandma Lucille from scraps of the double knit suits she wore in the seventies and eighties. For Christmas, my mom gave me a few blocks that they beive were from Grandmas sister, Lillian. My decision, so far, has been to add a few of each to the collection of vintage sewing supplies that I have started. I have pin and needle cases from all of my grandmothers and two greats. I have zippers from the '20's and a wooden handled zeam ripper from the '30's. Someday, they will be displayed with much love in my sewing room.

    With your top, I think I'd pack it carefully away, in a way that you can take out and admire from time to time, and include documentation so that future quilters know it's significance. I know, and believe that "quilts were meant to be used", but...WILL you use this one if you take the time and effort to finish? I know I wouldn't, it would get packed away again. That's just me, but maybe it can be a deciding factor for you?

    Thanks for being a source of inspiration for me as I have returned to quilting this year. I have enjoyed your blog! A trip to the Wisconsin Quilt Museum is on my list this year (I lube just north of Milwaukee).

    Oh, and I dearly hope dusty blue and mauve are not coming back. Although...I could use up some of my moms 80's stash if they do!!!

  4. What an interesting challenge. Can you quilt it as is to preserve your grandma's work? I kinda like that the seems don't match up and that she did her own thing. Do you have to take it apart to repair it and possibly change her design?

  5. I only saw one double nit quilt, and it was on my friend's bed. She needed nursing help one night nd so I slept under it. It was warmer than any blanket or quilt I had ever used!

  6. Quite a conundrum....but, since I'm not a big fan of just 'saving' something, I say it's time Grandma's quilt came out to live in the light of day. I love her wonkiness...I love the use of poly...I like that she could 'ease' those blocks together. Sounds like my kind of quilter!! If you can quilt it "as is"...that's what I would do. But if you need to deconstruct and reconstruct, then do it. The history will still be of Grandma's quilt, but the finished project will be multi-generational. That's not a bad thing, is it?

  7. Reading this post took me back in time....going through my grandmother's items after she passed away. I can still remember finding the polyester quilts she had made in a black trash bag. There had to be 4 or 5 completed tops in there, and they were at least queen size. I can also remember my great aunt saying......"there is no way those can be quilted now....just donate them to charity." Why OH why did we listen to her that day???? Looking back, I KNOW in my heart that Grandma had pieced those together for us grand kids for perhaps a special occasion. How we let go of those, I will NEVER know, and I have beat myself up in my mind over and over again now that I have a greater appreciation of quilting. I am just pleased to know you STILL have this work of your grandmothers. Do what it tells you to do in your heart. Store it for future generations as is, or restore it adding your personal touch. I am so glad you just have it! (Sniff Sniff)

  8. I helped a friend make three of these tops into quilts last year. Like yours they were grandma's, and she wanted them completed for the kids. I would suggest simply putting backs on them, and yarn tying them. It is what grandma would have done! There is no way these can be made to look correct. That is part of their charm. Go with it and relax. They are the perfect quilts for throwing on the floor for watching television, and inside picnics during these long cold winters. Have fun and Happy New Year!

  9. Loved this post, P!
    Reminds me of those scratchy double knit quilts my Grandmas would throw over the bed when I stayed the night in their homes. Have no idea what to suggest, though I do like a previous commenter's idea of yarn-tying. Seems apropos (hope I spelled that right!) given the era of your quilt tops. Be sure to update when you finish it and Happy Sewing! :)

  10. Paulette it is a wonder and a blessing that you have these quilts still. I think we all went through a period of disdaining double knits. I visited Wonkyworld and saw a few of Bill's collection and must say it has changed my mind. Did you see that he even has a hexie quilt done in double knit poly? Zoicks!
    I can't tell you what I'd do if I had my own grandmother's nine patch, other than treasure it. One of my big regrets is that we got rid of a really tatty and ragged wool afghan my great grandmother made. A victim of too many moves and cleaning outs. I hope you dofind the other quilt.

  11. My mom has a double knit crazy quilt and it is the heaviest thing ever - only for use on the coldest nights!


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