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For My Dolly

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?