What Quilts Mean: Why We Sew for Tragedy

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More than two years ago, when my mother was first diagnosed, my family and I quickly made her this quilt and gave it to her for the Mother’s Day we celebrated only a few weeks later. We didn’t really know anything yet, but it seemed the obvious thing to do; I felt quite strongly that a quilt was the only possible gift we could give to someone who would need comfort, care, and rest in the coming months.

We got to work immediately. My father bought the required materials, my brother pressed seams and basted, and I sewed. We felt industrious. We felt like we were doing something that would help. We felt like we were contributing to Mom’s care.

Or, more likely, that was just me and the others kindly indulged me.


To me, sewing a quilt was the only thing I could think to do, the only thing that made sense when nothing at all made sense. Thinking back on it now, I’m sure my family was shellshocked in a way we didn’t even realize at the time – we all knew the diagnosis was pretty bad, but we went ahead with daily crap. I channeled my worry into sewing and bottled up the rest. I imagined this quilt would be real comfort to her when it got as bad as I feared it would.

I’m sure she loved it and, yeah, she used it constantly, but the truth is – it didn’t do a damn thing for her. She still got sick, and then sicker, and then sicker, and neither the quilt nor I could do anything to help.


After she was gone, the quilt was passed back to the rest of us and it’s now the living room quilt. The first chilly winter night that I needed the warmth, I pulled it over me and was engulfed in horror. I could barely stand the sight of it, present in so many horrible memories of her tucked under it – not in comfort, but in pain. It suddenly seemed to signify everything I couldn’t do for her. I’m coming around to it now, but I’m still not quite ready for it to be a regular quilt again.

I’ve made a lot of quilts / mini-quilts as gifts, but this one is obviously the most fraught with emotion. I knew I wanted to share it for this series, but I wasn’t sure what to say about it. It hurts me to look at it now, but I needed to make it then. My mind kept coming back to this quilt, pictured in the book American Quilts: The Democratic Art by Robert Shaw (pg 53).


This quilt is referred to as the “Nancy A. Butler Quilt”, made by Nancy Ward Butler in Jamestown, New York, 1842. It is the single most striking and haunting quilt I have seen so far (in my admittedly limited quilty travels). It hardly needs explanation – Nancy Ward Butler was mourning:

Women also continued to make quilts commemorating special occasions, but some began to use their quilts in more personally revealing ways, adding written messages or other forms of personal expression to their work. One of the most poignant examples has large blue capital letters framed by sawtooth piecework that read simply: NANCY·A·BUTLER·DIED·FEB·3·1842·AGED 20 MO. There are no spaces between the letters and numbers, which are equal in size and spill from one line to the next without heeding the grammatically correct breaking points, a compositional approach that only emphasizes the unflinching directness of the message.
(Shaw, pg. 53)

This quilt makes my heart ache. I see in every hand-stitched letter Nancy Ward Butler’s pain driving her forward. Of course I know nothing about Nancy Ward Butler or her family, but I imagine any grieving quilter would feel an automatic connection with this piece – the grief so loud you can almost hear it – and an instant empathy for Ms. Butler’s need to take thread to fabric. Her quilt commemorates her granddaughter’s short life as well as her own loss, so huge that she simply could not contain it.

Do we sew during tragedy for ourselves or the event? I reckon both, because we simply don’t know what else to do.

4 Comments on What Quilts Mean: Why We Sew for Tragedy

  1. Kareen
    July 15, 2015 at 17:05 (3 years ago)


    • Kareen
      July 15, 2015 at 17:09 (3 years ago)

      I did this wrong the first time. I hope this works.

      I don’t think you should look on the quilt with horror. Yes, your mother passed on, but surely when she was using it for warmth and comfort during her struggle, she felt the love that you included when you were making it. Take comfort from that same love being returned to you when you wrap yourself in its warmth. Your mother would send you a message of thank you and love each time you use it.

  2. Patti
    July 15, 2015 at 21:17 (3 years ago)

    Julie, look at it from your mother’s point of view. You gave her a gift of love to comfort her. It wasn’t made to cure her or take away her pain, it was made to love and comfort her. It was an amazing gift for her.

  3. Rebecca Bell
    July 17, 2015 at 17:10 (3 years ago)

    I don’t have any words of wisdom on this. My heart breaks whenever I read anything you write about your mum. Just know that over the coming months, as you approach that incredibly difficult first anniversary of her passing, that you have lots of friends (real and virtual) who care for you and are here for you x


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