The Story of Grandma Dunn’s String Quilt

My mother’s mother was a quilter. Most of her quilts were utility quilts, made to be used. She made a lot of quilts! There were about 50 grandkids, and she made us all quilts. She had a total of 13 children, 10 that lived to adulthood. She lived on a farm, had a treadle sewing machine, and must have made a lot of clothes as well as quilts.
Grandma died in 1968. My mother lived in California then, but flew back to Missouri and helped with the disbursement of Grandma’s things. One thing she did was clean up Grandma’s sewing area. I don’t know how she managed to pack everything up, but I’ve been amazed at all she had.
In 1998 my mother decided to share Grandma’s blocks with me. She had asked me to make her a top out of some earlier, but I didn’t have any idea how to work with the odd stuff then. I’ve gained some experience, read some books on finishing antique blocks, and have periodically worked on some of Grandma’s UFOs.
blocks 2One quilt top that was in poor condition was one made of string blocks. I didn’t take a picture of it before I started taking it apart, but, believe me, it was in bad shape. The blocks had been sewn on paper, most by hand, and when someone washed it, they fell apart. Many of the blocks were made with little, tiny pieces of fabric in the points, and with all the seams coming together, were a mess. Grandma hade evidently tried to set in the blue squares with the treadle machine by sewing around all four sides, turning the blocks at the corners. In 2007, I started ripping it apart, at first just removing the blue setting squares, and trying to preserve the string blocks.
IMGP1361As I unsewed the corners, little bits of newspaper were still present. In this picture of some of them, you see dates of 1924-5, and also a reference to Japan, although it doesn’t have a date on that one. I think this shows that it was a long term project, from early 1920’s (or before) to World War II years.


After the top was apart, I realized that the string blocks were in bad shape. There was a lot of staining, some fabrics had shattered, and the blocks just needed to come apart. I did save some of them as they were, but most were dissected into their parts. As I took these apart, I noticed the different stitching on them.


Some were sewn with small running stitches, some with “toe catchers”. I think that many of the blocks were made by my aunts, and perhaps uncles, as something to keep them busy, such as when they were sick, or inside in the winter. There were also plenty sewn on the machine. It must have been hard to manage the tension well on a treadle machine, but it made them easier to take apart when the bobbin thread ran flat across the fabric .

I individually washed pieces, grouped by color,and soaked them in vintage quilt soak. If I couldn’t get a fabric to stop running (color), it was discarded. There was a lot of white fabric in the blocks, but it was obviously used, damaged fabric, and most was discarded, although I did manage to salvage some of the whites that were evidently sugar or flour sacks. Some still had writing on them.

Then the process of ironing all those itty bitty pieces started. I did them in stages, but there were still a lot of them. Even though they seemed like a lot, I knew there wasn’t enough to remake the quilt at about the same size. I purchased some unfinished blocks from the same era from eBay, and repeated
IMGP1350the process, unsewing, soaking, drying, and ironing.

By this time, I was tired of the project.  I carefully placed all the small fabrics in a plastic box with some other vintage fabrics I had reclaimed, and put them all away for a few years.

Happy Quilting,


Dar said…
Hi Becky. I am amazed at your patience and applaud you!! I have done some of what you went through to salvage some old blocks, but perhaps not to the extent that you have. The quilt is really looking great! I love the design and you will love it even more when it's finished. I hope you or your mother are the recipient of the finished product. You deserve it!
Kath said…
Hello becky. I arrived here whilst searching the internet for swalow blocks.
I have enjoyed reading about your string quilt and look forward to seeing how you progress.
I thought I'd say hello!
blessings kath in England

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