By definition a quilt is two or more layers of something fastened together somehow. What are the sources of materials that are used?

Over the years isolation has kept change to a minimum. The 1980 Federal Census figures show a rural population of barely three people per square mile in New Mexico. "It would have been a 36 mile round-trip if Dad had forgotten and brought home the wrong flour sack pattern," recalled Kay Croskett Connors of Silver City.

Availability, access to a store, seems to have been as much of a factor as money in the acquisition of new fabric for quilt tops. Distances were long for rural people; paved roads were few in New Mexico until after World War II. The trip to town for supplies was usually only a semi-annual event for a ranching family. This isolation is reflected in an old church-published cookbook from Moriarty. Recipe after recipe calls for a tall can, a half can and up to eight cans of this and that for a complete casserole. No running to the store for a missing ingredient. One had to use what was on hand, scraps included. And too, thrift becomes a habit. In the 1993 words of Aurora Garcia, "Save everything. It will come in handy someday."


Who were the people who put the pieces of cloth together to make a patchwork top? When did they do it? An old-way quilt, used for camping or lining the root cellar, covering the pumpkins or putting under the mattress, was intended to be constructed quickly with the help of other family members. One day in 1926, Estefanita Lopez invited her sisters, nieces, daughters, and grandchildren over to the ranch in El Valle to help her make quilts. She had a couple of dark wool coats, one with a bright orange lining, which she was cutting and fitting to make the two sides necessary for the quilt, but try as she would, there just wasn't enough good wool to finish one side. With the team of family members ready and willing to sew and tie, she couldn't wait. Quickly, she took the shears and headed for the barnyard. One surprised ram involuntarily donated a rectangle of fleece, which was couched down under cheesecloth to finish the quilt that day. This quilt has survived because generations of children have loved to rub that wool patch and refused to let it be recovered.

Wooly, by Estefanita Lopez, (69"x53"), pre-1930

New-way, fancy quilts take more time. So many memories of grandmothers begin with the words, "Any free moment she had, she pieced on her quilts."

There are also many hints of family members pitching in where appropriate. "My boys cut the cardboard patterns for me. Then I would cut my quilt pieces in the evening while they did their homework," recalled Elena Sanchez of Questa.

Although Viola Silva's husband was badly crippled, he always wound 30 to 40 bobbins for her, in preparation for a day of assembling patches in her Arroyo Hondo home. Viola planned to take about two hours to assemble a quilt top.

Husbands contributed in more oblique ways too. Garnell Allred's husband was a musician, and she did her piecing traveling the roads of Catron County with him. Or there are the lonesome evenings when "he's out politicking or elk hunting;" that's when quilts are pieced. Thus, husbands can indirectly determine the method of piecing. Ernestina Aguello said, "At home I use my machine. If I have a lot of time, like when we're driving back and forth from Taos to the ranch in Ocate, I do it by hand."

One time Ida Martinez had a Cathedral Window quilt on display in the old church in Arroyo Seco when two tourists stopped in. "Look, Mud; they got one'a them glove-compartment quilts." I asked what she meant. "You know. A gal would tear up her muslin squares and tuck 'em in the glove compartment of the pickup. A'course, there was a thread, needle and thimble too. Then she'd be ready any time the ol' man wanted a passenger. Them's too tedious to work on in the house."

Animals, by Lena Shellhorn, (66"x84"), 1932

Where did children fit into the quilt assembly line? "I did the embroidery on those blocks when I was eight years old. The hand and foot print block, right there in the middle, is of my youngest, meanest brother, a brat. We had to put him on the quilt because he threw a fit. It was my first and last quilt.," recalls Lena Shellhorn of Glenwood, Catron County.

Other children had different experiences. Carolyn Wells, growing up in Mountainair, tells that "when the weather was bad, we kids, there were six of us, had to stay home from school. One would press material, one would cut out, and one baste things together [to be sewn later by Mother on her treadle sewing machine]. The other kids were at the frame quilting."

Pablita Maes, at age 15, pieced her star quilt while she was herding sheep near Trementina. She even took along a small flatiron that she heated on the fire, then found a smooth rock, and ironed the small patches of old material.

Another loner was Erna Randall. "I made those two quilts to pass the time. Mother had taken the two younger children to live in Santa Fe for the winter, so they could go to school. I stayed home to take care of my father, the house, our store, and post office at Eagle Nest. I searched the house for every bit of dress goods to make those quilts, so's I'd have something to keep me busy in the store." (Eagle Nest is situated in a picture-perfect mountain valley 9000 feet above sea level, where winter weather begins on Labor Day and concludes on Memorial Day.)

Piecing a quilt top can fill many categories, from grim necessity to restful time alone or in company. For some, piecing was considered leisure, especially if one had gotten a bit ahead of the necessity for warmth. In 1931, Lola Linebarger and her friend, Peg Hendricks, spent afternoons in Servilleta, piecing their blocks from the template-cut fabric, all strung on a thread to keep different shapes separate. Her daughter said, "I remember one time Mother called Peg and said she had her quilt top all assembled, and this was just the morning after they had been sewing together. Peg said it wasn't possible, and Mother said, yes it was, because she had used her sewing machine." Shortly thereafter Peg moved with her husband to a new job in Nevada, and Lola, now without her friend, ceased making fancy quilts. The sewing machine could not replace the companionship of working together.

Marriage quilt, detail, by Angie Baca, (74"x60"), 1979

In contrast, Angie Baca likes to work alone embroidering her quilt blocks in the morning with coffee, late in the afternoon, and on Sunday. She spends a lot of time sewing for others, sewing clothes to sell, and doing alterations for Taichert's Department Store in Las Vegas, San Miguel County, but she embroiders for herself during coffee breaks.

For some quiltmakers piecing a top is a shared pleasure; for others it is a lone activity. Sometimes it is necessity; sometimes it is therapy; always it is product-oriented.


IV. What Difference Does It Make?

All text and photographs © D. Zopf, except where otherwise noted.