Should I Be Feeling Quilt Guilt?

[Previous Suburban Farmgirl, October 2009 – October 2010]

Show me a handmade quilt and I’ll show you a happy Paula. I’ve been known to covet friends’ family heirlooms, swoon over intricate versions hanging in museums, and, yes, buy a treasure or two that called to me in an antique shop. I love many mass-market quilts too — in fact I sleep under one every night — but I hold a special place in my heart for those hand-stitched works of art.

So why am I having twinges of quilt guilt?

Because I also sleep under a Depression-era red-and-white quilt. My very favorite, it’s usually folded at the end of my bed, an extra layer of warmth on cold nights. But is a vintage quilt too fragile to use this way? Might it tear? What if one of the pens I’m forever bringing into bed should leak? It seems too special to use and yet, isn’t that its purpose — to keep me warm, to be admired (and to cheer me up)? Besides, I like how it complements the basket of cute teddy bears made of old quilts that I bought near Nashville in the mid-1980s:

Oops! Quilts made into teddy bears?! Is that sacrilegious? Cause for more guilt? Should old quilts be kept pristine as a monument to the skilled hands that made them, or is it okay to use them — or even to drastically re-imagine them as recycled new things?

Seems like there are several camps of antique-quilt aficianados:

Quilt Camp #1: Those who cheerfully collect old quilts and just as cheerfully use them in everyday life. This family-made wreath quilt from ’30s used to top a guest bed, back when I had a guest bed:

Or this a redwork baby quilt I just adore, which I usually drape over a chair or trunk in my room. My mom mended the worn spots by transforming them into gingham squares:

Here’s my firstborn’s baby quilt (a.k.a. Yellow Blankie), which I bought in an antique mall and then washed carefully before turning over to him:

And — oops — here’s child #3’s vintage baby quilt, being used as a scarf, already in late-stage decay:

You’d never know her “Kiki” (that’s short for Blankie) was once a lovely pale blue and white quilt with blue and red floral embroidery. It was the very first thing I bought when I found out I was pregnant for the first time, although I’d only meant it for a room decoration, which is what it remained through two babies, until Margaret finally glommed onto it. Kiki was, to her, bedspread, teddy bear, picnic blanket, knapsack, superhero cape, fashion accessory, you name it. Once it was clear how attached she was growing to it, I had to make a choice: Put it up or let it go.

Obviously, I let it go. (Yes, that’s it above, as seen last week; the nice red in the upper part of the photo is my Depression quilt.) Quilt Guilt? Or satisfaction of seeing an object more loved and used than nearly anything else in my house?

Quilt Camp #2: Those who not only use old quilts as quilts, but creatively re-use them. Once quilts begin to out-wear their intended purpose as coverings (thanks to moths or stains or heavy use like Kiki’s), those in this camp think it’s okay to recycle them into other objects. Like, say, placemats:

…decorative pillows: (I love this vivid old duck!)

…Christmas ornaments:

And teddy bears. Not that I have the nerve (or, ahem, talent) to cut and re-sew quilts myself. But I obviously love a well-deconstructed/reconstructed specimen.

Quilt camp #3: And then there are those who collect and preserve old quilts, period. Don’t touch, hands off. Be careful! They’re stacked in display cupboards or tucked with tissue in trunks. I admire those in this category (whose prized specimens are often nicer than anything in my “collection” to begin with). They can be credited with helping to save the art, after all. I can relate, too: I admit I’m leery myself about over-using this lovely quilt my mom cross-stitched — although I also hate that it therefore seldom sees the light of day:

Fortunately, there’s room for all three kinds of old-quilt appreciators in this world. (Right? If you disagree, please share why!)

I love to look at mine — in whatever shape or form they may be in — and imagine the hands that painstakingly created their textures and designs. The miniscule, even stitches represent a kind of patience (and amount of time) I just don’t have in my present life. Each quilt requires an unsung kind of genius, someone bending over a tiny fragment while simultaneously envisioning the elaborate whole.  Whether you consider them household goods or works of art or comforting presences, old quilts are never mere objects (or reimagined new objects). They’re tangible love.

Can’t feel guilty about that.

That’s why I use ‘em, why I champion the recycled bits, and why I aim (Kiki notwithstanding) to preserve what I have — so my daughters and their daughters can touch the love, too.

  1. Denise au says:

    Personally I think quilts made with enormous time and love were made to be used, another idea is to hang the very precious – want to see but not use for fear of damaging it – is why not hang the quilts on a rod on your wall, they are there to enjoy just in another capacity and from what I’ve seen look wonderful too.
    Love your collection – all facets of it. Don’t have any myself but do admire how much time and effort goes into making them. The closest I’ve ever come to making one, is a patchwork doona cover, that my oldest son has on his bed and just loves it. Had to reseam a few places just last year. Still on his bed tho.

  2. Linda says:

    I never knew any quilters growing up. Only read about them in "Little House" books. Then, at about 20 years old, I got hooked. Saw a package of precut squares. No, I had never sewn. No, I did not have a machine. But that did not stop me and umteen years later I still love to quilt. When I heard from mom that when I was little, we had some quilts from "somewhere" and they were thrown out when they got used up and tattered looking, I was horrified. But, as mine get older, and old quilts come my way, I see that there are many ways for this fiber art to fulfill its lifes mission. Whether on a bed, under a baby or as a "kiki". Sometimes life just wears them down and the only way to save a bit of it it to recreate it, remake it into a new memory. Wish I had the talent and guts to do it myself.Thanks for the article,

  3. Linda says:

    I never knew any quilters growing up. Only read about them in "Little House" books. Then, at about 20 years old, I got hooked. Saw a package of precut squares. No, I had never sewn. No, I did not have a machine. But that did not stop me and umteen years later I still love to quilt. When I heard from mom that when I was little, we had some quilts from "somewhere" and they were thrown out when they got used up and tattered looking, I was horrified. But, as mine get older, and old quilts come my way, I see that there are many ways for this fiber art to fulfill its lifes mission. Whether on a bed, under a baby or as a "kiki". Sometimes life just wears them down and the only way to save a bit of it it to recreate it, remake it into a new memory. Wish I had the talent and guts to do it myself.Thanks for the article,

  4. annie says:

    Oh you have no cause for guilt. I’ll tell you about quilt-guilt, which I carry with me to this day. There were no quilters in my family, and I didn’t realize how precious quilts were until many years after the second incident… My mom says that one day, when I was a toddler, she realized I was too quiet. When she found me, I was carefully cutting out all the little colored fans on the quilt on her bed. She was too impressed with my accuracy to scold me. (Let me tell you: that would NOT have been MY reaction as a mother!) That quilt disappeared; I have only vague memories of it. Later, when I was in college, I took one of the matching twin quilts on our guest beds to my apartment, and in a fit of cleaning, I washed it. It came out of the washer in shreds, and all I could think was, "What a cheap thing!" It took me at least 20 minutes to get all the pieces into the trash. Two destroyed quilts – Now THAT’s quilt guilt, and I wish I didn’t have to bear it!!! I’m trying to make up for those losses, by making more quilts and educating others so they don’t make similar mistakes.

  5. Claudia says:

    I have a large collection of antique quilts and I make a large number each year. I display mine, use them, fondle them, rotate them, stack them on beds, give them away and covet those I don’t own. Is there a right way?? Who knows, I just do what I like. And I really like quilts!

  6. SuburbanFarmgirl says:

    Hey all, Claudia should know! Her email address and blog ( both have "quilt" in the title! So I’m taking heart in her comment!

    Annie–I love those stories, especially the toddler one!!

  7. Shari says:

    I think the only guilt should come from tucking it away in a cedar chest and not using it. A quilt is to be used! As a crafter I have made lots of gifts for friends and family, not necessarily quilts, but hancrafted items I worked hard on. I can say honestly that I would prefer to see those items in use than stashed out of sight (and out of mind) in a drawer. As far as quilts go, I am all for repair where possible. I am repairing a crazy quilt my great great grandmother made because my aunt was using it to move furniture! Repurposing them is good though, if there is too much damage to repair it. I have a quilt pillow my Farm Friend made for me, and I love it!

  8. SuburbanFarmgirl says:

    Oh I love love crazy quilts — the kind with velvets and other fancy scraps and stitching.

  9. aurelie says:

    I have only a couple of quilts that I feel are "too" antique to use everyday. The rest are on beds chairs and couches and meant to be used. They are to bring comfort to any person visiting or coming to our home,especially when it is cold outside. They go along with a fire in the fireplace and REAL hot chocolate on the stove. Once I gave away a quilt to someone and when I went to visit found in in the bottom of the dog cage. I like dogs but a thrift store blanket would have been a better option instead of something that took me 2 months to make and love. My quilts are for people..especially those that need a little warmth and hugs in their life. I say use them, love them and share them…just not with a dog. Lee

  10. Debi Harney says:

    I have been quilting for 18 years and collecting for the past 15. I use them, re-cycle them and preserve them. I rotate my antiques and even some of my newer ones so I can enjoy them now and for years to come. The quilts I make for others I get a great deal of satisfaction from them being used and loved. Just like there are no quilt police there should be no guilt quilts!

  11. I am a firm believer in The Velveteen Rabbit! If you ever worry about using your quilts in whatever form, bed covering or bear, think of the Velveteen Rabbit and know that your quilts are becoming more and more real with every use.

    That Kiki is as REAL as real can be, and I bet it has been worth it for the quilt and for your child and hopefully for you too.

  12. SuburbanFarmgirl says:

    I have to say…even though I have known Kiki is real and worth it…hearing validation from someone else unexpectedly bought a tear to my eye just now! thanks–

  13. Sheila says:

    I say use em. That is what they were made for. I make quilts for my siblings, their children and their grand children all the time and I want them to use them. I put a lot of love into them and I want to know that when they snuggle in at night they are wrapped in that love. I want these beautiful children to go to bed at night and think about how much they are loved as they drift off to sleep.

  14. Kathy says:

    I love, love, love quits. I believe they are made to be enjoyed…taken care of…but enjoyed. I don’t like anyone to sit on my quilts for fear of breaking the stitching. But I do want them to enjoy them. The quilts I make myself are to be used and enjoyed. I dearly love your collection. I never met a quilt I didn’t love.

  15. Cat says:

    If you want my view, there’s a book called Joseph Had a Little Coat that expresses it nicely! 😉

  16. Nicole says:

    Quilts, fabric, textiles- I love them. One of my prized possessions is a quilt that lay on my Grandma Dorothy’s bed (she is now 103- and absolutely amazing) when she was a child. It was made for her by her grandmother. It is a white and red quilt with tiny red hand stitching. It is one of the first things you see coming into my house. It hangs from a wall rack near the cabinet that holds the china that also belonged to Grandma Dorothy.

  17. Jennifer says:

    I think there is definitley room for all three camps when it comes to quilts! Some quilts you obviously want to take better care of than others but that’s no reason why you can’t still put them to use. Every quilt has a story behind it and that story grows the more the quilt is used and passed down through the years.

  18. Sherri says:

    I would love the opportunity to ‘rescue’ any unwanted quilts you may have. As a member of "Sisters on the Fly", our group is always on the lookout for quilts to repair and share with breast cancer patients who are recovering from surgery and/or treatment. You can always reach me via email if interested. Thanks. =) Sherri

  19. YvonneMarie says:

    I don’t know. I am in my 60’s now, and have been hand quilting for some time. I have my great grandmothers crazy quilt that has some spots that have decayed, but I can’t see cutting it up or anything. I know first hand how many hours are put into those 12+ stitches per inch hand quilting and know how satisfied I feel when it is finally completed. To know that someday someone will cut it up and not really use all of it, the quilt I made with love hurts.

  20. SuburbanFarmgirl says:

    YvonneMarie–exactly, that is where the guilt part creeps in for me a little…

  21. Carlisa says:

    I love my quilts and to quilt. I want the ones I have helped make to be used. I shared the joy of creting them with my grandmother and I have a quilt tht she made me that though its sort of fragie I use all the time. Sleeping under it or wrapping up in it reminds me of the love that wentt into it and the love I have for her. I don’t put it on the bed and leave it because my dogs are really hard on stuff like that, but I use it often. I also have bears made out of an old quilt and use some of my quilt pieces for table runners and coasters. Love is best shared.

  22. Cheryl says:

    I also say use them. I have a quilt that my Grandmother made for me and gave to me as a High School graduation gift. I use it off and on as it is priceless to me. But I love quilts and when I knew I had some surgery coming up, I asked my Mom if I could borrow a smaller one so I would have one to snuggle into during my recovery. I have moved that one from bed to couch daily, keeping it near. It is comforting to know that it is near to hand. My daughter had a pieced comforter that she used until it got too tattered to repair or clean.It also had been made by my grandmother and I used it on my bed growing up. She took it to college with her. I still have it in a bag in my garage not certain what I will do with it but not wanting to get rid of it either. My Mom has a collection of quilts and quilt tops, some family heirloom and some she has picked up at auctions. I say use them but learn how to take care of them also.

  23. Joy says:

    I am a quilter and I want my quilts to be used. That being said however, I am careful about who I give my quilts to. I would just cry if I saw one of my quilts lining a dog’s bed. I think re-purposing a quilt is great. After all, the whole concept of quilts in the first place was to find a way to reuse worn out clothing. So no guilt necessary, enjoy.

  24. Diana says:


    I love this piece! I, too, love quilts and started making them recently. I am in the process of rehabbing an old family quilt that has gone through its first life and needed a little love to go the next 75. As far as not being able to make something new out of an old quilt (I love the stuffed animal reincarnation) – how bad can it be – it’s already ‘ruined’ – TRY! You might love what you create… if you don’t it was going in the trash anyway. And never, never, never have a pang of quilt guilt. They are utilitarian items first and foremost, whether their purpose is to make us smile or keep us warm, hang on a wall or around our shoulders. Enjoy them! 🙂

  25. KimberlyD says:

    I have old family ones dating back to the mid 1800’s up to 1940. I use the one that was made in 1940, its in the wedding ring design with a pale orange backing, this one keep me warm in the winter. The older ones I put away and pull out to show. I don’t see nothing wrong in remaking them into other objects for you still will have the memory of them around, better than throwing them away when they are wore out. I made my nephew and niece quilts when they were born, they ended up looking like your daughter’s "kikie". LOL! And a sweet girl made me a small one to hang on the wall, which I do. What makes this one speical is her mother was my best childhood friend, and she died from cancer and I stayed close to her children and it was her youngest daughter who made the quilted wall hanging for me.

  26. carol branum says:

    Hi Paula,I see nothing wrong with re useing them and useing them.My dog chewed a corner of one of my good ones and that just made me ill.but,it,s ok,thats life,and they were made to me used,i have several all hand quilted by my mom.I love them,she made me a large teddy bear out of an old vintage beat up one.have a great day,carol

  27. Faith says:

    I love all kinds of quilts. For my mother’s 80th birthday, I sent all her family and friends squares of material and they embroidered or decorated them and added their names. It became my mother’s most precious gift. Often as she spread it out on her bed, she would tell stories about each family represented. Mother is gone now and the quilt is on my bed and now those stories are mine.
    Since being retired, I have been sewing baby quilts for the hospital for new mothers. As I work on them, I say a little prayer with lots of love for that new baby and mother.
    Quilts can be pieces of beautiful art to be collected and displayed; or used and cherished or even remade. They can mean a lot of different things to different people.

  28. SuburbanFarmgirl says:

    Oh Faith I just love that idea about the birthday quilt!

  29. Anita says:

    It truly can tear ya apart…that beautiful hand pieced and stiched quilt, with stains and rips. Quilts are a part of my heritage. Starting with my grandmother several generations back (not sure how many greats) who boarded a ship from Ireland with her husband and son, but did not make it to America. She died during the trip, and was wrapped in one of her quilts and buried at sea.

    Many of her descendants learned the art of quilting, as with most from that time out of need. The winters of the Appalachians can get very cold. It has continued down through the generations including mine, and hopefully we will pass it to the next.

    Quilts I agree were made to be used. When you are tucked in under a homemade quilt, you are tucked in a blanket of love. I am sure there are those very special ones that will be placed at the foot of a bed, or hung to display that won’t get tattered and stained. Thats ok, we need to leave examples for our childrens children to see and learn by.

    The quilts that most of my older ancestors made were not of the fancy type, so they did get used. I have pieces of one of my great great grandmothers quilts that I found cut to fit an old wooden ironing board, used by my great grandfather! It was covered by a couple layers of heavy cotton, I was thrilled to find that. I shared it with my sisters by cutting into hearts, and framed for them to keep.

    I love my quilts and the women that made them, some have passed on, I find peace wrapped up in their stitches.

  30. Shery Jespersen says:

    I’m with you all the way Paula. Use them in any way you see fit. Pass on the love of their unique sentimental meaning. I have one old blue and white masterpiece that is going to be used in some way on the our new porch. It wouldn’t stand up to practical use, but it is still a work of art that I cherish. Love your patchy teddies.

  31. Chris says:

    It is like the words of Erma Brombeck, "If I had my life to live over…" Well I personally use ALL my quilts. Even those that are close to 75 or more years old. Why not. You cant take them with you and why not enjoy them while you are here. There is nothing more comforting than being all wrapped up in an old quilt at night during the winter. I use everything, good china and anything that is in my house is subject to use. If I want to eat out of the good china daily for regular meals I will. YOU CANT TAKE IT WITH YOU so get out those old loving quilts and enjoy them.

  32. Elizabeth Englehart says:

    I have two quilts that i would LOVE to pay someone to make into bears for my daughters and my mother’s 70th birthday(the quilts were her grandmothers) Can someone give me a contact name of someone who could do that?
    Thanks. Elizabeth

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