Volume XIX, Issue Three | September 2020
Years ago, when I realized I didn’t have space for all the quilts I wanted to collect, I turned to doll quilts. I could store dozens of doll quilts in the space required for one or two of their full-size counterparts. Moreover, while it takes an entire wall to display a regular quilt, you can pin any number of dolly quilts in the same space. And while quilts are, well, quilts, doll quilts can be turned into pillows and other decorative items. Not to mention, doll quilts are far less expensive.
But practicality aside, I love doll quilts. I love their quirks and their uniqueness. Bedquilts can be perfect. Doll quilts never are, or at least, I never saw one that was. They are almost always worn. Dolls are so hard on their bedding. They are loved and prized by little girls, and I learned to love and prize them, too.
I grew up with one my grandmother made for my older sister. It’s a simple four-patch made with doll-size squares. Both of my sisters and I used it to keep our dolls warm. Some years ago, I gave it to the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum, and it’s on the dedication page of The Quilt That Walked to Golden. My grandmother’s talent didn’t pass down to me. I tried making a quilt for my doll when I was eight or nine and sewed it to my dress.
I’m not an expert on doll quilts, but I did learn something about them over the years. There seem to be two kinds. Some are made from squares left over from full-size quilts. Two or four of those squares comprise the entire doll quilt. The others—the ones I like best—are miniaturized quilt patterns. You wonder if mothers out there made full-size quilts for their daughters, then replicated the design in doll size. Crazy quilts were the most common, done in cotton or wool or silks. One of mine has a tobacco-pouch frog in the center. But almost any design was utilized. One doll quilt is two large pieces of fabric with a Chinese design. A red-and-yellow quilt is Indiana Amish. One tiny pink-and-white quilt was machine-stitched. I didn’t think it was anything special but discovered later that the unique machine stitch dated it to about 1840.
I collected my doll quilts over 25 or 30 years, buying them mostly in antiques shops. I purchased a couple online, but found they were newly made quilts made to look old. One was dated 1937 with a felt-tip pen. Besides, shopping on Ebay is not nearly as fun as coming across a quilt in an unexpected place.
I remember finding an all-white doll quilt on Portabella Road in London. When I inquired about it, the dealer told me, “Oh, it’s not worth much. It’s only American.” The quilt was so dirty that when I got home, I washed it, only to discover black dots inside—cotton seeds. I envisioned a mother picking cotton bolls and combing them to fit inside the tiny quilt. The cotton seeds disappeared when the quilt dried, by the way.
Although the quilts were intensely personal to the little girls who owned them, none of mine was actually identified. There are no initials, no dates (other than that one with the felt-tip pen.) The only marking on one of my doll quilts was an embroidered “For My Dolly.”
Last spring, when I was cleaning out the house during self-quarantine, I decided the time had come to find a new home for the doll quilts. So I donated them to the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum—all 53 of them. Well, all 52. At the last minute, I held out my favorite, a miniaturized Apple Core or double Axe Head or Friendship Forever design. It was the quilt I wrote about in The Persian Pickle Club. I miss them, and so do my dolls. How are they going to keep warm?
I love patchwork, and I love denim, so when I came across a Ralph Lauren denim patchwork blazer on Ebay, I bought it. What a disappointment when it arrived. The jacket was the messiest bit of patchwork I’d ever seen. Instead of being neatly stitched together, the raw-edge patches appeared to be glued one on top of the other, although when I looked closer, I discovered they had really been tacked down with black thread. I couldn’t imagine why Ralph Lauren had designed such a weird thing. Maybe it was a prototype that never reached the stores.
Then I remembered a table runner I had once bought 20 years ago, made up of bits of Japanese fabric stitched together in a similar way. So I searched online and found that that my jacket replicated a crude type of Japanese patchwork called boro. Whether Ralph Lauren had this in mind when the jacket was designed, I have no idea. But why not. Boro is a mending technique that was popular for centuries in Japan but fell out of use in recent years when old clothes were discarded rather than patched. In boro, holes and tears are patched with bits of different fabric, and frequently held together with an embroidery technique called sashiko. The Japanese fabrics are generally indigo and the embroidery thread white—like clouds against a blue sky.
I decided my jacket would look better if I embroidered some of the patches with sashiko stitches. So I bought special sashiko thread and needles, which are available on Etsy and Amazon. Then I bought two books on sashiko. (I’d also taken the jacket to a seamstress to get rid of the flair in the back, so you can see where this was going. I did forego the book on boro, however, because it’s out of print and costs $150.) While I bought both blue and white thread (it comes in other colors, too), I used only white, and I haven’t yet decided how many patches to embroider.
Now, I’m thinking of making a boro scarf out of a length of Japanese fabric I bought at a Japanese quilt show in Golden. I’ll mend it with patches from African material I found at the Chelsea flea market in New York. I may have found my calling. While sashiko has been elevated to a fiber art, the stitches used in boro are crude and sloppy, and that’s where I’m at my best.
Awards in the Time of Coronavirus
Last March, Western Writers of America announced that Some Place To Call Home, my mid-grade book set in Kansas during the Great Depression, was the winner of its 2020 Juvenile Fiction Spur Award. And in September, Women Writing the West announced the same book was tied for first place for WWW’s Willa Award for Children’s Fiction and Nonfiction. I’m thrilled, of course, but the honor is bittersweet because of coronavirus. WWA’s convention, originally scheduled for June, was postponed to September, then called off. WWW’s October convention will be a virtual one, with awards presented via Zoom. I’m disappointed not to be able to accept the awards in person. Still, nothing diminishes the honor of winning from two organizations whose work and values I hold in such high regard.
By Finola Austin. Atria Books.
What does a woman do when her husband ignores her and her children hate her? When she feels useless and abused and has no options? Big surprise. She has an affair. If she lives in the 19th century, she finds love wherever she can, like with her son’s tutor. If all goes well, the shoddy affair ends up in history’s dustbin.
For Lydia Robinson, all did not go well. That’s because the tutor she was accused of seducing was Branwell Bronte, scion of the famous literary clan. The affair became the stuff of legend.
The scandalous hookup was first exposed to the world in a biography of Charlotte Bronte written in 1857, two years before Lydia died. Since then history has viewed Lydia as an aging harpy who preyed on the vulnerable Branwell and destroyed his life. And so she remained, despised by the Bronte sisters and the literary world, until she was discovered by author Finola Austin, an historical novelist. The result is “Bronte’s Mistress,” an engaging tale of a woman caught up in the prejudices and restrictions of her time.
Austin came across the Bronte biography and viewed Lydia through revisionist eyes. She saw her not as a profligate woman” (the early biographer’s words) but as a luckless wife bound by rigid conventions, a woman with no options. Austin’s fictional biography of Lydia Robinson is based on extensive research and shows a complicated and conflicted wife who is a victim every much as her lover.
I’ve never cared much for historical romance, but Bronte’s Mistress is so much more than that. It’s the biography of a woman who wants more to life than what the 19th century allowed her. We can all relate to that.