Through Any Given Door

1.08 Crazy Quilt

1895 – 1915 • Nellie ~ My grandmother started her crazy quilt in 1895, the same year she started her family. Twenty years later, with the birth of my mother, Noreen Ellen “Babe” Chatfield, she completed them both.

Nellie (Chamberlin) Chatfield, circa 1895 Anaconda, Colorado

Nellie (Chamberlin) Chatfield
Anaconda, Colorado, 1895

During Nellie’s first period of confinement (it was improper for pregnant and nursing women to be seen in public) her quilted piece grew. Her fine hands stitched rivers of gold, roads of onyx, and fences of pearl, connecting salvaged pieces of fabric—of little girls petticoats, Sunday-go-to-meetin’ bests, Grandpa’s fine vest, a bit of a wedding dress, a narrow strip of a cambric shawl. Patches of stripes and checks were stitched and cross-stitched with a jigsaw of shapes and hues. She saved her sewing scraps in a flour sack until she had a quiet moment to stitch the patchwork of smooth velvets, shiny taffetas, and bumpy poplins into a multicolored canvas for her embroidered birds, butterflies, and sweet honeybees that winged across her quilted legacy.

Crazy quilt Over the years her bridle paths of alabaster threads gradually defined a landscape: a random patchwork of cattle-ranches, rice fields and farm lands as if viewed through the keen eyes of a soaring red-tailed hawk. In her ankle-length skirts and her high-necked long-sleeved blouses, Nellie rocked in her chair, her children in bed, her round sewing frame on her lap—silently laboring over her quilt, her only time of peace and solitude. By the gas lamp she stitched zigzags of rainbow, dapples of color, and splashes of hope, creating a cover considerable enough to warm a generation of Chatfields.

As the family traveled by horse and buckboard through dust and storm, homesteading parts of Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, the blanket, carefully folded and boxed, traveled with her. I can’t imagine living through those times—through the harsh Rocky Mountain summers and winters, praying for better weather, for water and a good crop, for relief from the grasshoppers and the mosquitoes and the incessant biting of horse flies. Praying for her children down with whooping cough, croup, and ague—supplicating, kneeling, genuflecting—praying to God for everyone but herself.

Nellie Chatfield with daughters, 1917, Boucher Street, Chico, California

Nellie Chatfield with daughters: Verda, Ina, Noreen “Babe,” Nella Mae, 1917 California

I can’t imagine having to haul water trying to keep things clean. Making one-pot meals in a black cast-iron kettle, the daily baking of buttermilk biscuits and apple cobblers and rough wheat breads, canning bushels of peaches and rows of corn to make it through another winter. Constant mouths to feed. Snow to shovel. Wood to chop. Animals dying, blizzards, buckboards, wagon trains, rattlesnakes, tornadoes, droughts—and babies—twenty years of birthing, nursing, rocking, changing, and bathing crying babies. Although Nellie wouldn’t have taken a million bucks for any one of her children, she wouldn’t have paid a nickel for another.

Maybe my grandmother’s crazy quilt kept her sane. With the passage of time, like the passage of her family, its threads—winding and wandering through the generations—have worn, frayed, and unraveled. But like her family, its colors have withstood, endured, and upheld the tapestry of life.


Crazy Quilt by Nellie (Chamberlin) Chatfield) sewn from 1885 - 1905

Crazy Quilt by Nellie (Chamberlin) Chatfield
stitched from 1895-1915

to be continued …

© 2017. Catherine Sevenau.
All rights reserved.

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  1. Jim Chatfield says:

    Cathy, she was a very pretty young lady and that quilt is outstanding. I can remember my grandmother Chatfield making quilts back in the 30s. Those women were very talented.

  2. A beautiful homage! Thank you, Cath

  3. What a beautiful, eloquent description of this work of art/metaphor for life and Lifeline!!! Nellie’s tale is a grand epic, stranger than fiction, and a legacy to be proud of! I just learned that my nephew, his wife and daughter, are writing a play about my great-grandmother Gertrude, who, during that same period, became a famous feminist novelist against all odds. Kudos to all of you for keeping their spirits alive!

  4. Jon McGuire says:

    Wow! That thing is beautiful, and that is that old. You can almost see how it grew over the years, just amazing!

  5. Juliette says:

    Fascinating the quilt talks.

  6. Find A Grave link to my grandmother, Nellie (Chamberlin) Chatfield (1873 – 1956)

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