Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Tell Me About Your Quilt: Jemima Mast Miller

Pin Wheel, 81" x 86"
Belonged to Jemima (Mast) Miller,
My Great Grandmother
Born 1876, Holmes Co., Ohio

Over the past several months, I have been researching the history of quilting in Ohio. More specifically, my focus has been the Tuscarawas, Holmes, Wayne and the Coshocton County areas where I have lived my life, and where my father's family settled more than 6 generations ago. Now home to the largest Amish community in the world, it's difficult to map one's genealogical history with so many crossing branches. 

There was no need to research the family tree as it was already well done by many, but it did make for some interesting reading. I was surprised to see my family had come to this green, Ohio valley as Amish, became Amish-Mennonite, and then Mennonite only a few generations before the quilt above was made. 

No, my real interest started with the early quilts, and understanding the meaning quilting had to women who left so few things of their lives behind. There were no lasting pieces of furniture, houses or barns as built by men. Those things that women touched seemed to be only momentary. Food was grown, preserved and eaten. Babies became children, and with grace grew to adulthood. Clothing wore thin as children grew, and was passed to the next born. Cotton, scarce from years of the Civil War, was frugally mended and re-used. The last good pieces were salvaged from worn garments, and added to scrap bags to later be used in patchwork quilts.

Time to produce something of beauty while living on the frontier or farm was also rare. I have tried to consider the hours even a modest household would consume to care for children, clean, garden, cook, wash, and sew clothing for all. And yet, these early Ohioans began making quilts within several decades after settling the state. Woven coverlets made from plentifully available wool in this area declined toward the end of the 1800's, and the use of quilts to cover their beds, daybeds, and cribs rose in turn. A few of these pieces survived, treasured and preserved by people who saw them as family history as well as historical documents. They understood the quilts were more than fabric, batting and thread. They were a link to voices in the past. 

When I saw and touched these early quilts, I felt an emotional connection. I sensed the voices, almost haunting me, and I was not quite sure what I was supposed to do about them. What was life really like for these women? I started reading, researching, and talking to anyone who could help fill in a gap that books left open. I found the reality of everyday life for those people startling. Survival depended crucially on family and community, and even then was often unattainable. The further I progressed, the more I needed to know, and yet, the more I realized I did not know. How could I honor the early makers? How could I help the voices be heard?

Time to Break Ground

So imagine rolling the history of fabric, dyes, and quilting in with family trees, local and state history, U.S. migration, and immigration from Europe since about 1700. It has been quite a personal research project, and one I was not expecting to take on such an independent spirit of its own. One question leads to the next, and I am excited there is still so much to learn. Though I believe just researching could fill years of my life, I also feel it is time to start the real work. I want to find the people who who are keeping the quilts and their history alive. 

"Tell Me About Your Quilt"

The concept was fairly simple. I started talking to people around here about my research project, and asking if they had any old quilts. If they did, did they know anything about them? Were they family quilts, ones they had purchased locally, found in a shop, and so on? Would they allow me to take pictures of them? Could I document them so they would also have a record? And this is how it started. Just recently, a family member asked me if I would like to see my great grandmother's quilt along with several others. Oh, yes, please! This is a story of Jemima's quilt.

Pin Wheel: Maker and Owner

This quilt was owned and used by my great grandmother, Jemima (Mast) Miller who lived in the Walnut Creek, Ohio, area. She was born 1876, and married my great grandfather, Amra Miller, in 1900. My grandfather, Ray, was the oldest of their 6 children. Short biographies about Jemima tell that she was a notably, fine seamstress making the clothing for her family, and also heading up the sewing at the Mennonite church in Walnut Creek. 

We hung and carefully examined this quilt, but there is no date, and no initials. Therefore, we cannot assume she made it, but it did belong to her. The 6 children she and Amra had have long since passed away, and would have been able to give us the best information. 

Pattern and Colors

This delicate pattern was based on a nine grid with pin wheels in the corners and centers. The 36 pieced blocks were alternated with solid blocks to form a lattice or an Irish chain. There is one variable star in each corner of the quilt.

The background fabric is white muslin as is the backing. The pin wheels are indigo, double pinks, stripes, and madder-style brown prints. The second picture from the top shows deterioration from the iron mordanting process used in producing the madder-style brown dye. (Mordants are crucial for binding the dye with the fiber or keeping the color.)


Brown was extremely popular after the Civil War, and continued into the last two decades of the 1800's. By 1900 it was out of style, and quilters might have looked for any other color. We also have to consider the very frugal tendencies of Mennonites, and style may not have been the first consideration for the maker. These prints may have been saved for some time before being made into this quilt so the dating could range over many years.

Stitching and Quilting

This quilt was entirely hand pieced, and quilted by hand with fine, stitches and white thread. The feathered wreaths, Dresden-type flower, and swirling swastikas patterns were well-known to the Holmes Co. area, and typical German motifs. The echo quilting around the wreaths differs slightly from corner to corner.  


There is some visible surface dirt on the quilt top and back, but it is is excellent condition apart from the fabric impacted by the madder deterioration. The quilting is quite dense, and that may have played a role. Lifting the quilt to hang, it was surprisingly heavy. Seen from the back, it is stunning!

Indigo Binding

The tiny print, indigo binding was cut on the straight of grain. It does not appear to have been replaced, and is in superb condition.

Batting Layer Inside

Areas near the top and bottom show a shift in the batting. I am curious if this is from usage, and where it was handled to pull up or down on the bed.

Small, even stitches throughout the quilt. 

One quilter or several skilled quilters?

Knots and Tails

I have not seen quilting anchored this way before. The knots were left on the surface with about 1"-1.5" of a thread tail.

The entire quilt was made this way, and it seems to have held well. Do you know of other quilts quilted similarly?

This post has been especially heartwarming for me to write. I can trace a quilter back to great grandmother on both sides of my father's side now, but I feel I know her by studying her quilt. It was like giving her a chance to speak.

I hope to bring you many more stories of local quilts in the year to come, and if you live in any Ohio counties I am researching, and have an Ohio quilt you'd like to share with me to document in person, please contact me at 

Please tell me about YOUR quilt!

Come on, Doxie girls.
Let's go sew, and label our quilts!


Linda Swanekamp said...

It certainly gives life perspective when you consider the lives and thoughts of those who went before us. Our art leaves a trail for others to ponder and wonder. I have no such history in my family and it is sad. The quilt is a quiet statement of beauty and order.

Quilting Babcia said...

I love reading these posts! You are so fortunate to have grown up in a family of quilters and have a beautiful heritage to record and share. And thank you for sharing your insights and these beautiful quilts!

KaHolly said...

Excellent post! Full of delightful information and so well written! You have the gift of words!

Kate said...

Such a great quilt story. We had quilters on both sides of the family, unfortunately the children of the quilters didn't value the quilts, many were used as protectors for dirty jobs. None remain, except a few my maternal grandmother made and quilted by hand.