A Dresden Plate quilt made with pieces from three generations of fibre artists.
Our Guild leader Marianne had an idea at our regular monthly zoom meeting. She suggested that we look through our individual UFOs and start a new project. The suggestion was met with mixed reactions—the UFO box might be a Pandora’s box or it can be a treasure trove of possibilities. After the past two years of confinement followed by weeks of bitterly cold weather and nothing to lose, I decided to take her advice and have a rummage through my box.
At the bottom of the box, lovingly wrapped in tissue paper was a long-forgotten package. I pulled back the paper to reveal five Dresden plates. These were given to me in the 1980s by my paternal grandmother. They had been given to her, and were actually made by her mother – my great grandmother! Mabel McGregor was born in 1874 and died in 1944, so the plates were probably sewn in the 1930s, if not before. Having been wrapped in paper all those years, they were in pristine condition, the fabric was as bright and colourful as the day it was cut and sewn by hand.
Feeling tremendous pressure to not let my ancestors down, the planning began. Of primary importance was to allow the vintage prints to have the starring role. A piece of white cotton duck, which is one of my favourite fabrics to use as background for modern quilts, would do the trick. It is a sturdy compromise between canvas and cotton, so it should stand up to the rigours of time and natural wear. Because it is plain white, it is very modern. I like the texture of the twill. My scrap was about 25 inches wide by 44 inches long, so I was forced to audition the plates in a line. Sometimes size limitations are a good thing. I hung the strip on my design board vertically (portrait orientation). As the plates were pinned to the background, each one was pulled out of line by moving alternate plates right and left to ensure that none of the negative spaces were equal. This slightly haphazard arrangement makes the composition feel modern.
The fairly large yellow cotton centres looked a little stark. At that point, inspiration struck. I would incorporate some of my Grandmother’s handiwork into the quilt. Grandmother (Margaret McGregor McLean) was born in 1903. She had polio in 1909 and while it did not stop her from having a full and active life, including being married and having four children, her passions were knitting and crocheting. Being the fortunate recipient of her wedding cedar chest containing a lifetime of hand-made items, I went searching. The yield was a variety of delicate crocheted and hand-cut doily coasters. I ran back to the studio with my treasures. Overlaying the doilies on the yellow centres was the perfect solution. It allowed the yellow to show through but the doilies add texture and interest to the centres. The piece I was creating was now a collaboration of three generations.
Debra’s grandmother, Margaret McGregor McLean, and great-grandmother, Mabel McGregor.
Having resolved the design dilemmas, I went to work. The Dresden plates were appliqued directly onto the background. Before pinning them down, I cut an extra circle of wool batting to slide under each plate which makes them a bit puffier and allows them to stand out in a three-dimensional way. They were sewn onto the background with a stitch-in-the-ditch around each petal. To maintain the 30s look, the plates were attached to the background using a small blanket stitch. The background quilting is a gentle S curve, sewn down the length of the quilt with a 40-weight Sulky rayon thread on my old Bernina Aurora 440. In hindsight, it may have been preferable to quilt the whole cloth background first and then applique the Dresden plates. Next time!
Debra’s loyal sewing assistant.
The quilt was finished with a traditional binding in the white cotton twill. Lastly, the centre doilies were attached by hand (I did one by machine, but the sewing line was too obvious). I am quite pleased with the final result, and hope that the Dresden plates will be passed on and enjoyed by future generations of my family.
The finished quilt using pieces from three generations of fabric artists!
Seeing the plates and working with them was a wonderful experience, making me feel connected to my grandmothers and having an appreciation for their wonderful skills. I believe the design has unlimited possibilities, and I will try more of my own versions.
Thanks, Marianne, for the great suggestion.
After creating a quilt with her ancestors’ pieces, Debra was inspired to make this Dresden Plate quilt called Ode to Grandmothers. She says: “It is made with scraps, of course!” Size approx. 50″ x 50″.
Debra McPherson is from Calgary, AB, and is a member of Fabricators of the Okanagan and Fibre Art Network.