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New Pathways into Quilt History written by Kimberly Wulfert, www.antiquequiltdating.com

Scandinavia to America: Quilting Through the Generations
She could put down her needle and rest.
by Janet Dykstra


There must be a quilting gene in my family. It begins, to my knowledge, with my Grandmother and Grandfather Carlson, was passed on to their daughter, my Aunt Pearl, and through my father, Palmer, to me.

The Carlson kids. Palmer (Janet's dad) on the left. Pearl is on the right (big bow on her head). Anna is standing, and Ruby is seated.

My grandfather, John Carlson, emigrated from Sweden to Illinois in 1900 when he was 20 years old. He was a very large, very strong Swede and had apprenticed as a tailor before traveling to America. My grandmother, Petra Palmerson, emigrated from Norway about the same time, at the age of 18. In school Petra had learned needlework ranging from crochet and lace making to Hardanger, knitting and quilting. It was expected that every woman  know “handwork,” so she gained her skills while still in Norway.

John and Petra Carlson –circa 1905

John and Petra met in Rochelle, Illinois and were married in 1905, settling on a farm nearby. While raising four children, Anna, Pearl, Palmer and Ruby, Petra often made use of her needlework skills.  But it was not until they moved to Rockford in 1922 that she began more serious quilt making. John built Petra’s first full sized quilt frame and set it up in the spare room. By day, John was now working at J.I. Case, a manufacturer of agricultural equipment, where he used his strong, calloused hands to forge tractor parts. But by night he sat with Petra at the quilt frame where he applied the fine tailoring skills he had acquired in Sweden, quilting up to 10 stitches per inch. As my now 98 year old Aunt Pearl tells it, there was always a quilt in progress and as the three worked at the frame together in the evenings she says, “It brought our hearts and minds close.”

John’s quilting on Janet's father's Irish Chain quilt, c. 1925.

Petra didn’t belong to a quilt guild, and her friends at church and in the neighborhood didn’t make quilting a social event as some did in that day. But together John and Petra made many lovely quilts. Their templates were generally made from cardboard borrowed from old shoe or shirt boxes. Only rarely did Petra use leftover fabrics for her quilts, instead purchasing much of her fabric at Ekeberg’s Dry Goods Store. Mr. Gust Ekeberg was a Swedish immigrant, so of course many of the Scandinavians patronized his store. Having once purchased a quilt pattern at the store and later realizing that the incorrect template was included, Pearl called the store to explain the problem. She was told that Mr. Ekeberg would drive by on his way home and drop off the correct pattern! While visiting with Pearl, Mr. Ekeberg realized that because of her heritage she spoke Norwegian as well as Swedish. Since many of his employees spoke Swedish but had difficulty understanding Norwegian, Pearl was offered her first job, in 1928…at Ekeberg’s! For several years she enjoyed working in the fabric department, imparting her quilting knowledge to others while her love for fabric and quilt making grew stronger.

Ekeberg’s during a parade, early 1900s.
Photo courtesy of Midway Village Museum, Rockford, IL.


This department store became well known for displaying finely crafted quilts made by women of the community. Instead of a quilting guild, Ekeberg’s served as the meeting place where women could come to visit with other quilters, trade ideas, get new designs, and of course, to purchase all the materials needed to complete their quilts! (Not unlike some of our quilt shops of today.) Because they had such a wonderful purveyor of fabric and quilt supplies in town, the women had little need to use mail order catalogs, often a common source for quilting materials during that time.

Together Petra, John and Pearl completed many quilts, each one precisely pieced or appliquéd and expertly quilted, and often giv
en to friends or relatives. They most often used traditional patterns, such as Double Irish Chain, variations on the Fan design, and floral appliqués done in colors common during that time such as pastel blues, Bubblegum Pink and Nile Green.

Detail of the Poinsettia Quilt
A more unusual quilt they made in the late 1930s was a red and white Poinsettia appliqué, a pattern that Pearl recalls to have originated in a South American convent. Pearl used her lunch hours to appliqué the poinsettias to the background squares and when it was pieced and ready to be finished, she used the poinsettia leaf template for part of the border quilting. This Poinsettia quilt was recently sent as a gift to a relative near Bergen, Norway. Many quilts were completed in the Carlson home, but years passed and even Petra and John left a few quilts unfinished, as it seems to go with almost every quilt maker.
One of the last quilts that Petra made for her first great-granddaughter, Beth, about 1965. Beth passed away when she was four. It was a different kind of quilt for her to make…much embroidery of nursery rhymes and less quilting. After this Petra mostly did crochet…easier on the hands and eyes.

The “handwork gene” appeared in the next generation when at the age of ten I had the urge to learn how to knit. Crochet followed closely after, then sewing, and of course the macramé era of the 60’s. Finally, I had a desire to make a quilt. With both Petra and John gone, I sought my Aunt Pearl’s help. She informed me that the only proper way to make a quilt was to hand sew and hand quilt. Little did I know what I was getting into!! She taught me the basics of quilt making and around 1973 I embarked on my first project, a simple blue and white lattice queen sized quilt, of course all hand sewn.

Pearl today, age 98, with her quilt square left from the poinsettia quilt she made in the 1940s,
with a pattern she bought at Ekeberg's.
After what seemed like an eternity of stitching, I had completed my first quilt! I enjoyed the process but I did not love my first quilt. I felt the color was boring and the design too simple. That particular quilt eventually accompanied my old German Shepherd to her eternal resting place!! I then went against Pearl’s instructions and decided that if I was going to enjoy quilt making I would piece by machine and therefore hopefully complete more than two quilts in my lifetime!

Peter and Katherine
under their quilts around 1990.

I dabbled in quilt making through the ‘70s. Appreciating the Amish culture and quilt designs, when my son Peter was born in 1984 I made him a child sized Bars (strippy) quilt. When Katherine was born hers was a Center Diamond quilt. Word got around that I was a “quilt maker” and I began to make quilts on commission. I designed, sewed, appliquéd, quilted and did my share of rotary cutting and quick piecing. For a period of time a brightly colored Bethlehem Star hung on our wall, soon replaced by a more pastel colored “art quilt.” I enjoyed making the quilts, I enjoyed teaching friends to make quilts and I enjoyed learning about the history of quilting. Even though the craft drew me in, something seemed to be missing. I had not yet found my niche.
Then, in the late 1980’s my Aunt Pearl gave me a beautiful floral appliqué quilt top that my Grandma Petra had made during the 1930’s; one of those missions left unfinished. I embarked on a journey of trying to do justice to this most exquisitely crafted top. After the long process of choosing the quilt designs, hand cutting the templates and marking the top, I endeavored to match the quality of stitching that my grandparents had achieved in their day. Katherine played under the hoop, the quilt draped around her like a tent, while I quilted away the evenings. As I took the final stitch in this old quilt, I felt the connection to my Grandmother Petra. It was as if she was there next to me, her lovely quilt complete at last. She could put down her needle and rest.   

Petra’s quilt from the ‘40s
that Janet quilted in the ‘80s

The way the design “popped” after being quilted, the soft hand of the cotton, watching the quilt become three dimensional as the stitches were worked across the piece. It was the quilting…the final step in a quilt begun so many years earlier…the completion of someone else’s dream…that filled the void. Soon people were bringing old tops to me to be hand quilted and I was touched by the various stories about the women who had made them. These tops, lovingly constructed, had been put aside only to be discovered years later by someone who cared enough to see the task through. The pleasure in the eyes of family members at the sight of these finished quilts was just so heartwarming. I had found my niche…to help complete the task that was begun years before.

Dresden plate top, c. 1940s, quilted by Janet in 2007
Over the years I have collected many quilt tops and they each have a story to tell. Each one has a woman (or man) who embarked on the journey of quilt making. Perhaps they couldn’t bear to waste the fabric still usable in an old shirt or apron. Perhaps they set out to make a wedding gift or to show their artistic talents. But for whatever reason, their vision was never realized. So one by one, I complete their projects for them. And somewhere I think they’re smiling.

Janet's quilt tops

Janet in her usual evening spot

A Post-Script: This past year my eight year old grand-niece, Petra, knitted a lovely scarf for her seven year old cousin, Ruby. I think she has the “handwork” gene. Sometimes it skips a generation. And now it’s up to me, her Great-Aunt Jan, to make sure it mutates into the quilting gene! You know I’ll make the effort, because I’m sure there will be projects in my cedar chest that need finishing when I am gone!

Thank you so much for sharing your story, Janet.
To contact Janet, email her.


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© 2007 - 2015 Kimberly Wulfert, PhD. Absolutely no copies, reprints, use of photos or text are permitted for commercial or online use. One personal copy for study purposes is permitted.

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