Mountainair is a railroad town. With curves and hillsides intervening, the freight trains seem to have no beginning and no end. Once those cars hauled pinto beans, corn, and wool; now it is other freight. Through all of the years, however, there have been women piecing quilts and quilting at home, in the church, and now, in the Senior Center. Five mornings a week they come to the Center, maybe only two women, often as many as eight, to sit around the frame and quilt. In fact, when times are extra busy, there are two frames in operation. The quilting is done free of charge for the townspeople, for each other, and for giveaways, just in case there is someone in need. The binding is done by a volunteer at home, usually a back to front process.
In the 1990's, it appears that the quilting bee has not vanished, just changed venue from private homes to Senior Centers. Perhaps we will have a generation who must learn to quilt from a book rather than at their mothers' knees, but once upon a time (1930), Leva Kempton of Socorro played under her grandmother's frame, and it was a proud moment when she was allowed to put in a few stitches. For Rufina Roybal, of San Miguel County, growing up in the 1940's was a bit different. "When Mother was teaching me to quilt, if a stitch was too long, she would pull my ear and make me take the stitch out and re-do it. I learned in a hurry."
In the 1950's in Catron County, Clara Hogsett recalls, "My Trip Around The World" quilt started out to be a doll cradle quilt and it just kept going. It was a teaching quilt for my three daughters. If you look closely you can find some beginner's stitches. The youngest girl was only five."
Trip Around the World, by Clara Hogsett, (58"x74"), 1950
From Carolyn Gonzales in Taos County we heard, "I learned to quilt from our home extension agent in 1988, after 30 years of quiltmaking. That was the prettiest quilt I have made and the only one I have quilted and I gave it to my sister."
Again, we must take into account the same three factors that have distinguished the north from the south before: the majority of the population without a quiltmaking heritage; the need for frugality in both time and materials; the use of an existing cultural item (the woven blanket or serape) as filling.
"The string we used for ties came from the Sanchez Store packages [in Mora in the 1940's] and from the tops of the flour saquitos (sacks), all wound into a ball until it was time to tie a quilt," recalled Loyola Lucero.
In 1996 in Chama, Rio Arriba County, the seniors still tie their quilts with the white string from the sugar bags. The string from the chain stitch closing across the top of a sugar bag had other uses too. One woman said that as a youngster, she learned to crochet with that string, chaining and pulling out, time after time, until the string was so filthy her mother would wash it and then show her a new stitch.
Occasionally there is an older quilt tied with bright yellow string, proof of a smoker in the family, since yellow was the color of the drawstring in a bag of tobacco. Ties always seem to be a leftover, whether from bags or embroidering, crocheting, knitting or weaving.
Plaids, by Josepha Rodriguez, (60"x67"), no date
(tied with tobacco bag drawstrings)
When the survey team pulled up at the Senior Center in Willard, it was only 8 a.m., but things were already bustling. The center, comfortably furnished with the proceeds from special breakfasts, is next door to the post office. People collect their mail and then stop in for a cup of coffee and to find out what's going on that day. One man hurried right out to tell his wife that we were really there. Another quiltmaker sent her grandson to check the schedule. Later in the morning two little girls, ages 10 and 12, appeared with a quilt made by their grandmother. When we presented them each with five dollars for coming, plus one dollar for bringing one quilt, they ran back home and each pulled a Grandma quilt from her bed and brought it in to be recorded.