Patches From the Past
Scraps of Fabric, Sewing & Quilting History

An Adventure in Quilt Rescue

In June of 2001, I attended a local farm auction held in La Farge, WI, which had been advertised as having many antiques, which is what I was interested in, and some tractors, which is what my husband was interested in. While wandering around and looking at the items, I noticed a large wooden cheesebox, in fair condition, but was not exactly interested in it.....until someone else opened the top. I had to get a closer look, so I went up and peered inside...and found it was filled with vintage fabric and feedsacks.

Laura holding a quilt she rescued I was immediately interested, but I played it cool--I walked away and pretended to be interested in something else, but kept the cheesebox in the corner of my eye. I thought to myself, "OK, I will bid up to $25 for the box." The auction continued, with some of the antiques selling for very high prices--one item, a broken thermometer from the town of Dilley (which no longer exists) sold for $250! I was beginning to despare of getting the cheesebox for under $50.

As I kept my eye on the cheesebox, a number of people came up and opened it, and many just walked away after that, but one lady opened it, began to remove some of the fabric, and started to pull out some old quilt blocks as well. She even called her husband over to look...and I agonized over having to pay up to $100 for this cheesebox, and secretly told this woman to take her hands off it, it's mine!

The auction was getting closer to where the cheesebox stood on it's table, when suddenly the auctioneer changed directions and went over to the farm equipment and tractors. Oh the agony!! But, during the tractor portion of the auction, it began to rain, and many of the antique dealers left. The rain became severe, and the auction was halted for a time even, and many more people left, but when the auction resumed, I saw my lady nemesis was still there, and looking again inside the cheesebox. Oh the horror!!

Finally the auction returned to the table where the cheesebox stood. Several other items were sold first while I waited in breathless anticipation. The auctioneer held up the began to drizzle again....and said "$10, $10, $10, who will give $10?" I got up the courage and said "$1", and waited for the next bid from the lady and her husband....not a word. Another woman in the back of the crowd, who I swear never even looked at the box all day said "$2". I then said "$3", the rain started coming down a bit harder.....she said "$4"....I said "$5"...she said "$6".....and as I said "$7", the skies opened up, and the rain poured down. Everyone ran for cover except me....and the auctioneer. No other bids were made, and I won my cheesebox!!

Soaking wet, I hurried home to check out my new prize. The cheese box was stuffed with fabric, and it smelled to high heaven, but it was mine. And inside I found blocks....and blocks...and blocks....and blocks! All together, in amongst the fabric, there were sets of blocks, enough for 8 quilts, one completed quilt top, and at the very bottom, were the biggest surprise....signature blocks!

Since then, I have made it my mission to complete the quilts that these blocks represent. Most of the fabric dates from the turn of the century to the 1930's, with the exception of the signature blocks, which I was able to date by the names to around 1895. The signature blocks had began a new adventure tracing the names embroidered on the quilt and finding that the makers lived in a town that now longer exists, Seeleyburg, Wisconsin. I've found intriguing stories about some of the quilters lives but that is another story, which I will save for a different time. Currently, I have 3 of the quilts finished, and all but 2 sets of blocks completed into a top. I am hand quilting them in the style of that era, and using vintage material to complete them as well. I feel these quilt blocks by an unknown quilter deserve to be finished after all these years, and I am well on my way to doing just that!

Laura Nessler, 2005 (Do not reproduce this article without permission from the author.)

Resources on the Internet:

Antique and Vintage Quilt Care at a Glance

Stitches in Time Restoration Basics: When and how to clean and restore damaged quilts.

Repair, Restore, Conserve: Information on what to do with damaged antique quilts.

Learn Quilt Restoration at Home: Quilt restoration workshops sold on DVD. Find informaton on quilt care and preservation as well.

Quilters' Save our Stories Interview: Carter Houckand her rescued 30s quilts. Explore more quilters' stories here.

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