Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2004 | Reviews

Patchwork: Iowa Quilts and Quilters by Jacqueline Andre Schmeal

By Carol Wilcox

Expressions of so many of the virtues and values we hold dear, homemade quilts deserve to be cherished and their makers remembered.

Bookstore shelves are burgeoning with quilt books—books filled with patterns, tips for quicker construction, advice on selecting colors for a striking composition. There are books dedicated to one theme, such as cats; books illustrating seasonal quilts to hang on walls or decorate the dining room table; books of baby quilts; books exploring variations on a pattern. Do we really need another quilt book?

Yes, perhaps we do.

In her new book, Patchwork: Iowa Quilts and Quilters, Jacqueline Andre Schmeal looks not so much at quilts as she does at quilters, the women and men of Iowa who have created artful bedcovers throughout the state’s history. Having interviewed dozens of contemporary quilters and researched written records left by others, Schmeal presents brief life histories of the people behind the quilts.

She introduces us to Ruth Vaughn Ricke, a young widow with three children who quilted to keep her family warm in a house without electricity. “I’d get up at 5 A.M. and sew quilts and go to work about 6,” Ruth recalled. “I had made quilts all my life. It was something I liked to do. It was relaxing and still is. It set the day positively.”
Later, Ruth married a widower neighbor by the name of Ivan Johnson, and the pair quilted together in the farmhouse they shared. “We’d argue over what colors to use,” Ruth said. “We’d get a bunch of fabric and lay it on the floor or table. If it wasn’t right, we’d get some more until we found what we wanted. Ivan liked to work with black. I didn’t. It was hard on my eyes.”

We meet Ethel Taylor Jordan, the woman who was asked to quilt the Iowa sesquicentennial quilt made up of blocks representing each of the state’s 99 counties. As a girl growing up during the Dust Bowl and the Depression, Ethel recalled that “Papa couldn’t go to the store and buy feed without one of us girls. If you were the one that needed material, you got to go.” For that family—and for countless others—quilting was a necessity, a way to give every last scrap of fabric, new or used, a worthy purpose.

Schmeal, a native Iowan, journalist, long-time collector of quilts, and founder and president of the Iowa Barn Foundation, introduces us to the Sunshine Circle, a Quaker society organized in 1912 to make “quilts and comforts” for people in need. Women in the group still gather to socialize and to help where they can with sewing and quilting. “When we talk about someone, it isn’t gossip,” group member Avis Kenworthy explained. “It’s caring.” As she demonstrates in her book, Schmeal, too, cares about people, particularly needleworkers who make quilts. Often as humble and hardscrabble as the quilts they produce, quilters are frugal, generous, and warm. They make do with what they have and they make it better. This book is a gracious compliment to quilters past and present.