In November, the Houston weather finally turns crisp. We start pulling out our favorite Thanksgiving recipes, and snuggle under cheerful throws while watching football on TV. But it’s the old handmade quilt that everyone vies for on brisk fall nights. Rooted in family tradition and stitched with love, it offers a cornucopia of comfort—and tells a tale or two.
Kathy Kennedy-Dennis’ 30 Year Quilt conveys completion and change. It’s the first quilt this Memorial resident started, and it took her 30 years to finish. Kathy took up quilting when she worked as a physical therapist in New Jersey. “I saw a picture of a beautiful quilt in a needlework catalog,” she says. “My grandmother had died, and I was going to inherit a gorgeous sleigh bed. I knew that quilt would look just right on it, and that’s why I got started.”
But over the years, through many moves, Kathy kept putting it aside, wishing she could get back to it every time she packed. Finally, she did, finishing the country quilt in 2002. “It was a great triumph,” she says. And she still has the sleigh bed.
Kathy, who belongs to a quilting bee called The Cut-Ups, considers her moves an adventure and brings the same joie de vivre to quilting. While her first comforter was a Mount Everest of sorts, her skill has evolved and she’s made 50 other quilts along the way. In fact, she’s the only Houston finalist in the prestigious International Quilt Festival competition. Her vivid Jumbled Jungle mixed media entry, which includes dyed fabric and appliqué, was inspired by a coffee table book called Colors in the Wild. “Each of the quilts I made, starting with the 30 Year Quilt, contributed to this one,” Kathy notes.
Thirty years might have only been three, if Kathy had crossed paths with Holly Rice, who thrives on completing unfinished quilts. “I like going to flea markets and antique stores and looking for old quilt tops,” says the Memorial resident. The confessed perfectionist enjoys finishing them, adding the middle batting, then the backing that turns them into full-fledged quilts.
Holly studied quilt appraisal and can sometimes date the fabric she discovers. “I found one from the early 1900s, but you can tell they added another row in the 1930s.”
The most meaningful quilt top she finished was made by her grandmother, Freda Kelsey, 70 years ago. Aptly called Grandmother’s Flower Garden, the quilt creates the visual impression of a well-ordered garden. Rice belonged to a small bee at the time, and the women helped make the quilt “bloom.” “My grandmother lived in Wisconsin but stayed with us during the winters,” Holly shares. “She happened to be here in Houston to see it finished, six months before she passed away.”
Holly would have a field day analyzing some of the 35 quilts and quilt tops that Carolyn Panedianco inherited from her grandmother, Sudie Cass, who grew up on a farm in Central Texas. Sudie was incredibly resourceful and made full-size bed quilts from all kinds of scraps, including feed bags, and flour and tobacco sacks.
Carolyn has the first quilt her grandmother made, at the age of 17. It is a dutch doll pattern, featuring 30 dolls wearing different fabric dresses and bonnets. Each doll was appliquéd to a separate block, and each block was embroidered with the name of a friend or relative.
The story comes full circle. “One day I asked her, ‘Do you think you can make a quilt for me? I need a baby quilt.’ And that’s how I told her the great news,” Carolyn recalls. “She made one out of whole cloth—a satin pink she chose—and, at 79, that was the last quilt she made.”
Memorial’s Cheryl Miller says her grandmother and grandfather used to quilt together. “It was very unusual. My mother has three of them, one called the Lone Star Quilt. It’s made from fabric scraps and radiates out to make a star.”
In a way, Cheryl made her most heartfelt quilt with company as well. Called a Baltimore Album Quilt, the quilt was done in tribute to her parents. “I lost my dad to lung cancer and made this a year after his death. Each one of the squares meant something to them or me. I included blue bonnets, because my mother was born in Texas, and roses, because my dad raised them. Cheryl’s mother came to stay with her after his death and she quilted while her mother sat by her side. “Quilting—rocking a needle back and forth,” she says, “can be meditative.”
It’s no wonder then, that we feel soothed, wrapped in these cherished old quilts. Infused with family legend, stitched with inspiration and care, this precious piece of heritage reminds us we can handle anything—even one more debate about stuffing.
Editor’s Note: Interested in quilting? Visit the Quilt Guild of Greater Houston at www.qggh.org.