"The Quilt Whisperer" from Jackson County resurrects old quilt
By Lori Johnson
BLACK RIVER FALLS - Many people feel that a quilt is the epitome of a combination of a work of art, thrift, re-purpose and beauty. It comforts, it evokes memories to the lucky ones who craft them.
There was a special gift waiting for 91-year old Emmy Spice of Wisconsin Rapids this year. Thanks to the efforts of her daughter, Sarah Larkin of Black River Falls, she received a reawakening of a quilt she made almost 70 years ago that she had thought had been thrown away. This is a story of that quilt and its resurrection
Emmy made the quilt squares not long after coming to America from Munich, Germany in the early 1950’s. Her husband’s Aunt Fanny had definite ideas about being a good American housewife and quilting was one skill that was part of it. Emmy did all of the applique on this quilt and each girl was a little different. The pieces for the dress, hat, and umbrella were chosen from the scrap box and pinned to the white square. Then the embroidery lesson began. Each day, Emmy would go over to Aunt Fanny’s house and they would work on the quilt blocks, Aunt Fanny sitting right beside her, making sure that she was doing it correctly. It took a very long time to complete enough squares to make a quilt. When the squares were finally completed, Aunt Fanny sewed them together to make the top of the quilt.
Next it came time to construct the quilt. Aunt Fanny had a large living room in her house. A large quilting frame was assembled and balanced on the back of 4 large kitchen chairs. The quilt backing, batting in the middle, and the quilt top were attached to the frame and it was ready to be quilted.
Fanny’s friends; many of them members of her church congregation, sat with her in chairs around the quilt and stitched the layers together. When the quilting was done, it was removed from the frame and Aunt Fanny and Emmy finished the edges. Emmy took the quilt home and it was put to use as a cover for their bed. This was one of the first of many quilts that Emmy would help put together with the women of the family.
Sarah said, “I remember the quilt growing up. It would come out of storage in the fall to keep us warm on cold winter nights. It was well loved and well used!”
Fast forward to the 1970’s. Sarah, in college at Eau Claire came home one weekend to find Emmy doing some cleaning and brought out the quilt. Sarah remembered, “The back was ripped and most of the batting was gone. She handed it to me and told me to put it in the garbage can outside for my dad to burn in the burning barrel. When I got outside I couldn’t just throw it away, so I put it in the back of my car and kept it a secret!”
Sarah discovered that although the quilt was mostly in tatters, the blocks themselves were in good shape. She removed the back and batting and folded the top away to keep. She would end up moving this quilt top with her many times, through marriage, locating to several different towns, and starting a family.
Time moved forward to the mid 1990’s. Sarah continued the saga of the quilt. “I worked for a friend, Betty, who had a craft business and quilt shop. I happened to come across the box with the quilt top and took it to work with me. Betty advised me how to separate the quilt blocks and helped me cut pieces to reassemble a quilt top. I am not a quilter, although I do know how to sew. I was able to sew the blocks back together into a top and then it was packed away again. I came across the quilt top occasionally while cleaning out a closet, but never took the time to complete the project and it would get packed away again.“
Then in the spring of 2020 the world was thrown askew by the Covid-19 pandemic. Sarah continued, “ My job was disrupted when school was closed in March and I found myself at home looking for projects. I happened to find the quilt top that had been packed away for almost 20 years and decided it was going to get it finished once and for all”
This is where quilting friends once again came in! Sarah explained, “I volunteer several hours a week in the History Room at the Black River Falls Public Library. Mary Woods is the historian there and after hearing the story behind the quilt, offered to help me complete the project.
Mary took the quilt top, consulted a quilt expert and purchased a batting and thread for tying, sewed the edging on and the back pieces together and suggested I try to locate a quilting frame. Cheryl Nortman had a quilting frame that I was welcome to use. With all of the pieces in place, Mary and I, along with Joanne Nash, met in the History Room one Sunday afternoon. After much trial and error we had the quilt on the frame and tying could begin. It took us about 4 hours to finish tying the quilt. We then removed it from the frame and Mary took it to an amazing lady named Evie Ruiter to “square it up.” This wonderful lady not only made sure that the quilt was squared up, but she also added the binding; completing it all in one night! It would have taken me a week to do that!”
“The last leg of the journey for this quilt was to present it to my mom,” Sarah smiled. Emmy had moved into The Waterford Assisted Living Facility in Wisconsin Rapids about 3 years ago after suffering a stroke. Due to Covid restrictions Sarah was not allowed in the facility itself but was able to obtain special permission to take her mom out for a day.
“So, I picked my mom up and we headed to my daughter Hannah’s house, about 45 minutes away. I told mom that I had something of hers that I needed to return. I had wrapped the quilt in brown paper with a ribbon. Mom slowly opened the package and the quilt was folded back side out. Her first comment was that she didn’t need a blanket. I told her to unfold it. When she saw what was on the inside her face broke into a big smile and she said; “Is this the quilt I made? I threw it away! How did you ever find it?” I filled her in on the long story of rescuing the quilt and all of the steps and wonderful people along the way who helped put it back together. She shared bits and pieces of the quilt from her memory while looking at all of the squares. The quilt is now on her bed again for the first time in over 40 years, with quilt blocks sewn almost 70 years ago. When Mom is done enjoying it, it will be passed to Hannah to enjoy. It made for a great day of reminiscing. Mom happened to mention a starburst quilt that she also helped make that was quilted on a frame in our garage. I remembered this as a child, as I loved sitting under the quilt and watching the needles go in and out. I didn’t tell her, but I also have that quilt packed away. It also is a bit tattered and torn, so it may be my next project!”
Her love of revitalizing quilts definitely is earning Sarah the nickname “The Quilt Whisperer”.