Today's Quilt Historians
Women at Work
New Pathways into Quilt History written by Kimberly Wulfert,
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
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
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,
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 given
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
||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
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.
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
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
Janet's quilt tops
Janet in her usual evening
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
© 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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