Whether for frost or fire, a laugh or a gasp of admiration, quilts have become an essential part of New Mexican homes. "It was necessity...we threw them together because it was cold," or "With seven kids (in the 1960's), you got to do something."
Rose Schmitz came to Mountainair as a homesteader in 1906. She saved every sack and scrap of clothing, ordered bags of remnants from Montgomery Ward, and ran an account at Piñon Hardware, in order to have enough materials to make the 10 quilts per bed, five under and five over, needed in wintertime.
The Roybal ranch in Rio Lucio, Rio Arriba County, comprised 13 acres and supported a family of 14 children in the 1930's and 40's. Mother Demetria had to make everything except coffee and sugar. There was no electricity; she had a treadle sewing machine on which she made "cientos y cientos," hundreds and hundreds, of utility quilts: four or five on top of every child, and older ones beneath them. Only one of Demetria's quilts remains, "Grandmother's Flower Garden," hand quilted in the 1940's; it was a fancy quilt that was prized by the family.
Grandmother's Flower Garden,
by Demetria Roybal, (82"x82"), 1940's
In Socorro County, we found a widow with seven tops pieced, seven tops in progress, one on the frame, and one in the hoop. Another Socorran, Patsy Bailey, said "Piecing and quilting are my major form of self-expression. It just kind of happened. I've even come to think we might have world peace if quilters would put more purple and chocolate brown in their quilts to soothe people down."
"We laugh a lot, the six of us in our Rodarte quilt club. But one time I sat there and cried and I said I can't do this, but I did because they helped me." That was in Taos County in 1991.
However, the most unusual idea for the use of quilts may belong to a Valdez (Taos County) housewife. Her husband told the story. "Whenever that wife of mine wanted me to buy her new curtains for the house, she'd show me the bare windows and I'd say, 'What happened to all our curtains?' and she'd say, 'They were so old I had to cut them up to make quilts.'"
Scraps, by Magdalena Martinez, (55"x72"), 1940
(made from "recycled" window curtains)
Is there anything a quilt can't do? They certainly can conjure up memories. In Taos County, Martha Lucero said, "My mother, Elvira R. Romero, made it the year she died, 1975, because she wanted me to remember her by it, the Christmas Quilt."
Neva Turner brought a quilt to the survey that "was pieced by my quilting club in Fort Sumner as a going away gift. We were making a hasty departure (1981), so the blocks were pieced and embroidered in one day. I had to set it together and quilt it."
There has been a tradition among some Dixon residents over the last 30 years that, instead of a baby shower, they would make a community quilt for a new baby. Mothers and older children worked with fabric and embroidery floss, crayons and paint, to create the blocks, a practice which has now been carried into the second generation.
Diego's Baby Quilt, (35"x50"), 1950
(Community quilt for new baby, made by Dixon women)
We can read a quilt like a book. From a distance it is the colors that attract us. Are the fabrics the plaids, ginghams and twills of old clothes? Is there an abundance of one color that would indicate a uniform? Up close we can begin to see the individual shapes or "words" of the piecing. An even closer look reveals the stitches, the "letters on the page". There are thousands of stitches in every quilt. A gentle smoothing of the patches will reveal whether they were assembled by hand or machine stitching. Sometimes both techniques are employed, suggesting additions or repairs. If the quilt has been quilted by hand, are all of the stitches the same size or did more than one person work on this quilt? When children were included around the quilting frame, their stitches are most likely to be found near the edges, the less visible areas of a quilt when it is spread on the bed. The edge of a quilt is also the easiest area to place between your thumb and fingers to feel the filling. A tear is even better for determining what is inside. This is the way I've discovered old serapes. It is all a record of rural life.